GOP governor drops in on Dems
Carolyn Nelson kept an eye on the frosted window in a door of the Fort Lincoln Room at lunchtime one day last week.
“I’m watching the shadows,” she said.
Nelson was understandably nervous. She was waiting for an important guest, and she wasn’t confident he’d show up.
Nelson chairs the Democratic caucus in the North Dakota Senate. Her invited guest was the Republican governor, Doug Burgum.
Those waiting were not many: nine Democratic members of the Senate, a Senate spouse, less than a handful of party workers and a single reporter.
The crowd grew by three when Burgum appeared. He brought two aides.
The senators were ready. They had prepared questions intended to drive their agenda.
But Burgum was ready, too, with a little bit of teasing. “What’s it like,’ he wondered, “to be in the minority?”
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate 38 to 9.
Nevertheless, one Republican committee chair groused, “He never comes to see us.”
That’s not quite true. Burgum was in the House chamber to deliver his State of the State address, he summoned legislative leaders to his office to share his budget and he appeared at a revenue forecast meeting in early March.
The Democrats’ questions dealt with Indian affairs, educational innovation, tobacco prevention, corporate taxes and taxes on property.
Burgum made some news.
He said that elk would be legal targets in a hunting season next year after what he called “decades of disagreement” about the increasing number of elk on reservation land. The season indicates that the state government respects tribal wishes and can reach compromises.
Answering a question about state revenues, Burgum suggested that North Dakota ought to borrow money from itself to finance infrastructure improvements, including water projects.
North Dakota “has tight cash flow right now,” he said, but that doesn’t mean that the state is broke. The question, Burgum suggested, is “How do we optimize the financial base of our state?” The answer, he said, “is one we’ll be working on by the time you guys get back” for the next legislative session two years from now.
Burgum repeated themes from the gubernatorial campaign. Public schools, he asserted, have been sheltered because the state has picked up most of their costs. “We need to be careful when we insulate programs from what’s really happening,” he said.
About the tobacco prevention program, he said, “I’m not sure that spending a lot of money on television ads is going to influence teenaged smokers.”
And he repeated his criticism of local planning decisions that put new infrastructure outside existing city limits. That means more streets, curbs and sewer lines, and those cost money, he said.
The “Main Street Initiative” that he announced in his state-of-the-state address has been misunderstood, he said. It’s not a single program but a new way of looking at how and where money should be spent.
“People keep looking for a single initiative,” he said. “But this involves every agency of state government.”
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