Forum editorial: Burgum budget is fiscally prudent and visionary at the same time

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum meets with The Forum Editorial Board to talk about his proposed state budget Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Gov. Doug Burgum just unveiled the first budget plan that fully bears his stamp. After more than two years of talk about reinventing state government, including time on the campaign trail, we finally have a good look at what the entrepreneur-turned-governor has in mind. His budget plan for 2019-21 manages to be both conservative and bold in making investments that will put the state on a more promising path.

Consider: The plan balances the budget without raising taxes and replenishes the state’s rainy day fund and takes care of a looming pension solvency crisis nobody even was talking about and makes hundreds of millions of dollars in strategic investments.

To do that, the governor’s budget shifts money from low priorities to high priorities and trims the number of state employees, but seeks to improve pay and benefits for state workers. It’s amazing what you can do when you get rid of the boring, meaningless workings of bureaucracy.

That was the premise behind Burgum’s directive to agencies and programs to trim 5 percent from budgets that already were slashed to cope with the budget crunch from declining revenues.

If adopted, Burgum’s plan will restore sustainability to state spending and will pay for a lot of important investments, both in programs and infrastructure.

Some of the budget’s people priorities: increasing state support for K-12 education by raising per-pupil payments from $9,646 to $10,036 by the end of the biennium, boosting spending on behavioral health by $19.1 million and increasing pay and benefits for state employees by almost $180 million.

The governor also wants to tap earnings of the Legacy Fund. Burgum proposes a list of $300 million in forward-looking Legacy projects that includes $40 million in higher education challenge grants that, when matched with private dollars, should yield $120 million.

He wants to spend $20 million to support research at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota and $30 million for a statewide network for unmanned aerial vehicles to maintain the state’s leadership for this emerging technology.

Burgum also proposes Legacy funding for an infrastructure revolving loan fund and expansion of a K-12 school construction fund — combined appropriations of $80 million that, when matched, could mushroom to $535 million.

The governor also advocates investing $50 million from Legacy Fund earnings to help finance what is envisioned as a $150 million presidential library and museum for Theodore Roosevelt in his namesake national park in the beautiful Badlands — a world-class attraction that would become, in the governor’s words, North Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.

Compare that strategic slate of Legacy projects to the $200 million tapped from the fund to bring the current budget into balance by paying the state’s bills. This budget is fiscally prudent and visionary at the same time. It is not muddling along with business as usual. It charts a course. Lawmakers, who will put their own stamp on the budget, would do well to follow along.