My Sunday newspaper column this week was the result of an interview I did with Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum last week. Unfortunately, due to the length constraints of my column, I had to leave out a lot of what Burgum told me in that interview.
So by way of expanding upon my column, I present the rest here.
‘I think the governor is going to be selected on June 14’
Burgum doesn’t seem to think the Democrats have much of a chance of winning this election. He has said that he will push his campaign to the primary election, which is held on June 14 and picks the nominees for public office from the various parties, and he said that if he wins on ballot he’ll start making plans for how he’ll govern.
“I think the governor is going to be selected on June 14th. Whoever gets selected, on June 15 you put together a team and start working with the Legislature,” he told me. “You don’t wait until November. In a world of relatively certainty after June 14 you have six months to work on it.”
He says the winner on the June ballot needs to get to work because the state’s budget situation is changing rapidly. “This isn’t just about we cut the budget for a while and wait for commodity prices to come back,” Burgum said. “This isn’t going to the root cellar while the storm passes over.”
Oil surpluses will be the norm in the future Burgum says, with prices staying low. “This is a situation where the abundance we have in oil…I don’t think we’re going back into a shortage. This will be the first time in history when people are essentially storing oil in the ground,” he said.
Burgum says his experience in the technology world has prepared him for this sort of a situation. “One thing in technology is that every year we had to do more with less because prices were always falling,” he said. “In some cases particularly at Microsoft we were competing against something that was free. You’re trying to sell Windows and Linux is out there for free.”
“My candidacy isn’t like I’m going to do a 5 percent across the board cut,” he added. “It has to be a fundamental rethinking of how we deliver government services. We have to figure out how to do more with less. That starts with leadership. That starts with who we bring in. It’s the whole piece of what I would get excited about as governor. Some people get confused about why I would want to be governor. Well it’s a CEO job and I’m excited about being CEO.”
With everyone so focused on Burgum’s positions that are out of keeping with what might traditionally be considered Republican positions (support for gay marriage and abortion as the two most obvious examples), and with North Dakota Democrats seemingly more excited over Burgum’s campaign than that of the woman who is seeking their endorsement, I went the other way.
Why does Burgum identify as a Republican?
“For me the fundamental starting point has to do with solutions. Private enterprise, free market solutions versus solving problems using the government,” he told me. “From all my involvement in the private sector, the private sector is more efficient.”
“Whenever you move over anything to the government you eliminate competition,” he added. “You create a monopoly and you create inefficiency and higher prices over time. I’m a private enterprise, free market guy.”
He suggested that the ideology of the left, at least as far as commerce and economics goes, is based on a phony premise. “We talk about splitting up the pie. That’s a false premise,” he said. “We live on the planet where we can expand the pie. If you don’t slow down the pie expanders, we’ve seen in North Dakota how quickly things can change if let the economy work for you.”
More on abortion
In my column I noted that Burgum told me that America before 1973 was a “dangerous place.” He had quite a bit more to say about the issue.
“The thing about wedge issues is they’re great for the talk shows, they’re great for some candidates because they help candidates get elected, it helps energize the base,” Burgum told me. “What I haven’t seen is that all that energy on either end of these issues, is that energy translates into actually solving problems.”
“I’m not running a campaign built around social issues,” he added. “North Dakota voters have spoken on this most recently on Measure 1, by a 2-1 margin they said they didn’t want it.”
Measure 1, SAB readers will remember, was a pro-life constitutional amendment which was defeated on the statewide ballot in 2014.
Burgum compared banning abortion to the failed national policy of alcohol prohibition. “This analogy may not be perfect because people might say that every human life is more important than alcohol, but certainly alcohol is something in our country where back during the prohibition days there was a moral and theological reason to say that this stuff was destroying our families. And then we banned alcohol and we saw what happened which is that alcohol consumption went up and not down.
“We had a situation where things got worse and not better,” he added. “We had an unintended effect.”
Under the leadership of Governors John Hoeven and Jack Dalrymple, not to mention Burgum’s opponent in this race Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota has taken an aggressive stance in opposing attempts by the federal government to increase regulation of oil, gas, and coal development in our state. I asked Burgum if he would continue that stance.
“Generally I feel like the current administration has been extending a lot of overreach through the EPA,” he told me. “There’has certainly been a breach in the way the country is set up. We’re supposed to have three branches of government. The people who make law is the legislature not the executive branch. When you have these large federal agencies…they try to extend these things, some act from the 1970’s, it’s no different than on the internet they’re trying to take the 1933 telecommunications act and use it to regulate the internet.”
“It’s probably great for the lawyers but not great for solving whatever underlying they want to get to. At the state level I would be challenging the federal government on a number of fronts.” he added.
As to oil development specifically, Burgum says there are things the state could have done better. “The development of the oil industry in North Dakota has been overall a plus. But if you take a business that scales really fast and goes from a startup to billions of dollars in revenue, when you go that fast of course there’s things a long the way where we could have done things better,” he said.
Burgum said he’d like to get flaring down to one percent, and that he’d like to do more to protect private land owners.
On coal development, I asked Burgum about the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan which state officials and the coal industry in North Dakota has identified as a major threat.
“We’ve got all of these diverse energy sources, but 80 percent of the energy in our state comes from coal,” he told me. “Because we’ve got a dependency, we need to pay attention when the federal government starts setting standards. I’m for clean air, I’m for a clean environment, but it’s all about the pace.”
“I think it’s appropriate that we push back on things that are sort of executive mandates, but on the same time I want to work with the industry and say hey the customers want power and they also want clean air,” he added.
What happens to his business interests?
Burgum is running on his resume as a successful private sector businessman, but that business is tied to a lot of public policy here in North Dakota. Perhaps the most visible way is in the tax exemptions he collects for his real estate ventures.
I asked Burgum how he would handle conflicts of interest between his work as a policymaker and his interests as a private businessman, and he had a great answer. “I don’t want to be tongue in cheek or flippant about the whole thing but some people have suggested that this is an issue and they shouldn’t vote for me,” he said. “To me that means we should only elect governors who have only done all their investing outside of North Dakota.”
“The typical thing isn’t that you get a lot of wealth and plow it back into North Dakota,” he added. “I’ve been willing to basically put my money where my mouth is. I keep investing in North Dakota even when people tell me I could get better returns elsewhere. It’s better than some person who has no conflicts because they’ve never believed in the state enough to put money here.”