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Port: Can Burgum deliver on promises to reinvent government?

By Staff | Dec 23, 2016

Gov. Doug Burgum took office this week and in his first address to his cabinet set a bold tone for the next four years of his administration.

Burgum charged the state’s agency heads with changing their attitudes from “did I get more money than I got last time to did I get better results than last time.”

He told them to “stop defending institutions and start reinventing them.”

He said those out looking to increase their budgets were going to find it hard to connect with him. “Those meetings are going to be hard to get,” he said.

This all sounds great.

Can Burgum deliver?

He’ll be helped somewhat by the state’s fiscal situation. Under former Gov. Jack Dalrymple, state spending boomed alongside revenues, driven by high crop prices and intense oil development, but those boom-time revenues weren’t the new normal. The river of money flowing into state coffers has dried up. The new budget Burgum and the Legislature will develop must reflect that reality.

Our state constitution does not allow for a budget deficit.

Just as Dalrymple got too much credit for a roaring economy driven by commodity prices beyond his control, Burgum will probably get undeserved credit for cutting budgets when fiscal realities gave him no other choice.

It’s easy to be a fiscal conservative during lean times. The true test is what happens when resources are plentiful.

But Burgum is promising more than some changes to budget line items. He’s promising something much more profound, which we can see in the job description for Jodi Uecker, the Burgum administration’s new “chief operating officer.”

According to the press release announcing Uecker’s hire she will “closely with the governor and his appointed agency heads on strategic and cross-cutting initiatives designed to improve processes, spur innovation and reinvent the delivery of services to realign government for the 21st century.”

“Reinvent.”

That, my friends, is the rub.

Because while Burgum has a fetish for corporate jargon and job titles, the State of North Dakota is not a corporation.

Burgum is governor, not the CEO.

The Legislature is not a division of North Dakota, Inc.

I’m worried Burgum doesn’t understand this. I’m also worried about his actual policies, because we don’t know what those are yet.

His campaign in the Republican primary against Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was long on shallow, poll-tested talking points and short on policy specifics. His general election campaign against unserious Democratic challenger Marvin Nelson was all but non-existent.

The only serious policy proposal Burgum has put forward is his oft-touted Main Street Initiative, which reads like a sermon on the perceived success of economic development in downtown Fargo but with few specifics on how that might be replicated in all the places which aren’t Fargo.

Making broad philosophical pronouncements on the campaign trail is easy. Implementing that philosophy amid the nitty gritty of policy making is something else entirely.

I wish Burgum all the luck in the world. What he’s selling sounds good so far to this conservative.

I hope his policies will actually be good once we learn what they are, and if they are good, that he’s successful in pushing them through a political process that is going to be much different than what he probably expects.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator.

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