Doug Burgum: “You Don’t Need More Money, You Need Better Ideas”

I don’t think there was anyone who was as consistently critical of gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum during the Republican primary campaign than I was. Even now, I’d like to know a lot more about what sort of specific policies this guy plans on implementing.

What are his budget priorities? He’s pledged not to raise taxes, will he abide by that in the face of plummeting state revenues? Is he afraid of state spending cuts pushing up taxes, property taxes in particular, at the local level? Which side will he be on when the Legislature inevitably tackles the sticky social issues which crop in every session?

The specifics of how Burgum would governor have so far been obscured. Buried in platitudes and generalities and millions upon millions of dollars in campaign messaging. This is what drove a lot of my frustration with his campaign during the primary.

All that being said, as he’s transitioned from a bitterly contested primary contest into the general election he’s striking a much different tone. Yesterday he was in Bismarck talking with lawmakers and taking notes during a meeting of the Budget Section committee. Today he spoke at a NDGOP event and was conciliatory toward his former opponent, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who he savaged on the campaign trail.

And he said something quite striking about the state’s fiscal situation:

“If I’m governor and people say, ‘We need more money, we need more money,’ the answer right now is going to be, ‘No, you don’t need more money, you need better ideas.’ … I want to see results, not budgets. Everyone fights about budgets. Let’s fight about results,” he said, drawing applause.

It’s easy to understand why that comment would draw applause. If Burgum means what he says – and the jury is still out on that – he may be a very good governor indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. Spending cuts are going to be pretty easy to accomplish in the 2017 session, politically speaking. The state’s revenues are down dramatically, and we have a balanced budget requirement in the state constitution. The choice for lawmakers is either tax hikes, which seems to be what Burgum’s Democratic opponent Marvin Nelson is talking about, or spending cuts.

With apologies to Nelson and the Democrats, I don’t think there is a lot of appetite among North Dakotans to enact tax hikes to keep spending at levels attained at the peak of the oil boom. So that means cuts.

Even some of our spendthrift governors, like Jack Dalrymple and John Hoeven before him who presided over a tripling of general fund spending, would look like fiscal conservatives in this revenue environment.

But what Burgum is talking isn’t just cuts but spending reform. That’s something different. Something a lot more interesting. Something all those Democrats who crossed over to vote for Burgum aren’t going to like so much.

I can’t wait to learn more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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