Burgum address strikes positive tone, promotes spending plan

By JAMES MacPHERSON

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Gov. Doug Burgum used his State of the State address on Tuesday to convey optimism about North Dakota’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, while making a pitch for lawmakers to endorse his budget proposals that he said would benefit residents for generations.

“This (coronavirus) battle is far from over. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we have the tools to get us there,” the Republican governor told a joint session of the Legislature.

North Dakota had led the country in per capita cases for many weeks until a steady decline that started in mid-November. That also coincided with a two-thirds decline in hospitalizations due to COVID-19.

“Fortunately, we have new tools at our disposal to fight COVID,” including vaccines, Burgum said. 

Burgum’s speech came shortly after the Legislature opened its 2021 regular session. During the Legislature’s organizational session a month ago, Burgum outlined his spending blueprint in a separate address, and his Tuesday speech contained many of the same themes.

Burgum last month unveiled a $15 billion budget that increases state spending by 2% and includes a $1.25 billion bonding package largely aimed at funding statewide infrastructure projects Republicans and Democrats also will push separate but similar bonding proposals, using interest from the state’s multibillion-dollar oil tax piggybank to pay off the bonds. 

Burgum’s budget is the second-biggest proposed by a governor in state history. He appealed to lawmakers to back his proposal, saying “we have a historic opportunity to invest in infrastructure, diversify the economy, build healthy, vibrant communities, support research and innovation, transform government and build true legacy projects for the prosperity of North Dakotans for generations to come.”

Burgum’s address Tuesday was his fifth since being elected in 2016. Many of his budget priorities in the past have failed the pass the GOP-led Legislature’s scrutiny. 

Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota appealed to Burgum and lawmakers to speed coronavirus vaccinations for tribal members and help bolster infrastructure and law enforcement on the state’s five American Indian reservations.

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox told the joint session of the House and Senate that living on a “reservation can be hell” because of crime, drug abuse and poverty.

Fox said unemployment is as high as 80 percent on some reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota.

“The lack of jobs on Indian reservations is why we can’t overcome poverty,” he said. “Education is key to making a difference to where we want to go in the future.”

Since 1985, a tribal chairman from one of North Dakota’s five reservations has given a speech to the Legislature.

The Three Affiliated Tribes and the state have long been at odds over shared tax revenue on the Fort Berthold Reservation that is in the sweet spot of the Bakken formation and the Three Forks directly beneath it. Fox renewed a call Tuesday for more equitable tax agreements between the state and tribes.

Since 2007, the state and the tribes have shared more than $2 billion in oil tax revenue.

Fox said revenue has dropped more than 70 percent on the reservation since the beginning of the pandemic.

North Dakota Chief Justice Jon Jenson wants state lawmakers to support a study of the state juvenile justice process in North Dakota.

The chief justice made his appeal after the speech by the tribal chairman.

The legislative study is part of a House bill that requires “a review of effective intervention, resources and services for children.”

The study could result in legislation in the next session.

Jenson also wants lawmakers to fund projects that include remodeling the state’s law library to make better use of that space, as well as an upgraded “document management system” for the state’s juvenile courts and the state Supreme Court.