Governor Burgum Wants Lawmakers to Give up Some of Their Power of the Purse

Governor Doug Burgum rode into office last year on a landslide victory from the electorate.

One of his campaign promises? Making government more efficient. Pushing it to do more with less. Burgum tells us he wants to reinvent government.

We haven’t seen a lot of that sort of thing so far, and lawmakers have noticed. Burgum staffer Robbie Lauf was grilled in committee by Rep. Bob Martinson (R-Bismarck) recently about the absence of proposals for reinvention from the executive branch.

But one area where Burgum has asked for something innovate is in the area of budgeting. “Rather than locking up money on any one line item in an agency budget, he would like to see flexibility to move unused funding to other line items to target various programs and initiatives,” Bismarck Tribune reporter Nick Smith wrote over the weekend.

“It matters less to me what the final number is; it matters more to be able to use it elsewhere,” he quotes Burgum as saying.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The problem is that government is not a business. State agencies are not divisions of North Dakota, Inc. The Legislature is separate from the executive branch and has, as its primary power to be a check on executive branch authority, the power of the purse.[/mks_pullquote]

On paper it’s not a bad idea, particularly in a state where lawmakers meet for no more than 80 days to set a budget for two years. Sometimes a need lawmakers appropriated for disappears. Sometimes a given endeavor proves to not be as expensive as expected. It makes a lot of sense to give state agencies some flexibility to shift excess funds from one place to another.

I suppose what Burgum wants is something akin to have private sector businesses work, where a given division of a company might get a budget and then the autonomy to use that budget to accomplish certain goals.

The problem is that government is not a business. State agencies are not divisions of North Dakota, Inc. The Legislature is separate from the executive branch and has, as its primary power to be a check on executive branch authority, the power of the purse.

What Burgum is asking lawmakers to do is give up much of that power. His motivations are pure, but it’s a proposal worthy of skepticism.

While it may be valid to criticize lawmakers for micromanaging budgets at times, it’s also valid to criticize state agencies for at times spending money troubling ways that are far outside the scope of legislative intent.

For instance, when lawmakers created a program matching state dollars to private funds raised for academics by the state’s universities, NDSU began using those funds for athletic scholarships. Which, I’m sorry sports fans, are about enhancing the school’s athletic teams not academics.

Lawmakers I’ve spoken to about Burgum’s proposal are, rightfully, afraid that it will result in wasted tax dollars. Or the use of dollars to begin initiatives that that incur on-going costs which lawmakers must then budget for.

They also point out that, while Burgum’s leadership of the executive branch may be trustworthy, they do not want to set a budgeting precedent which could be abused by later, less scrupulous leaders.

Burgum wants budget flexibility to inspire innovation in state government. That’s a good thing! It’s what he campaigned on, and he should pursue it. But getting there is going to require some safeguards for lawmakers.

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.

Related posts

Top