State is on cusp of a new era

Gov. Doug Burgum delivers his State of the State Address in front of a joint session of the 66th legislature on Thursday afternoon in the house chamber of the capitol. Gov. Burgum spoke on the state's strong economy and said "we stand at the cusp of a new era in North Dakota’s history,”

BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum said North Dakota should avoid a “scarcity mindset” and embrace its status as a provider of energy, food and technology during his State of the State address Thursday, Jan. 3, the first day of the 2019 legislative session.

“Today, the state of the state is that we stand at the cusp of a new era in North Dakota’s history,” he told the packed state House chambers. “And by harnessing the courage to dare greatly, we will cultivate a prosperous future for generations to come.”

The first-term Republican governor also touted successes during his first two years as the state’s chief executive, highlighted efforts to reform information technology services, warned of a behavioral health “crisis” and rehashed his budget recommendations.

Lawmakers began their first regular session since 2017, when they cut general fund spending by 28 percent after a downturn in tax revenue. Burgum highlighted some positive economic news in his nearly hour-long speech, including growing taxable sales and oil production figures, but he and top lawmakers have signaled a cautious approach to spending before they craft budgets over the next few months.

Burgum’s address came about a month after he delivered his $14.3 billion spending proposal for the 2019-21 budget cycle, and he highlighted those recommendations throughout his speech.

Burgum also pitched a plan to split the state’s higher education governance into three boards, calling the current single-board model outdated and “woefully ill-matched” to address the complexity of today’s system. He challenged the plan’s opponents to read a report published by a task force he chaired.

“I believe that this Legislature can come forward with a proposal that is better than something that was invented in 1938,” Burgum said.

Burgum suggested ways to alleviate the state’s workforce shortage and outlined proposals to tap earnings from the voter-approved Legacy Fund, with a particular focus on infrastructure loans and the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. He received a standing ovation for announcing that the governor’s office would display the flags of the state’s five tribal nations.

Thursday marked Burgum’s third State of the State address since taking office in late 2016 on a promise of government reinvention. He gave an off-year speech in Minot last year.

Burgum said there was a “perfect storm” greeting him in his first days in office, including the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests and state budget woes. But he said the state is “stronger than ever” today.

Republican leaders in the state Legislature agreed with Burgum’s optimistic tone, although House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, of Carrington, said he didn’t hear much new content.

“I heard a lot more reaffirmation,” he said. “I thought it was a really good speech.”

Democratic state Rep. Karla Rose Hanson of Fargo, who serves as assistant House minority leader, said she agreed with the governor that North Dakota has “great potential” but advocated for a larger increase in K-12 funding and said nursing homes are struggling with funding.

Burgum became emotional several times during his speech, including near its conclusion when he reflected on the nature of his sparsely populated and often-overlooked home state.

“If we see ourselves and our state as too small, too distant and too cold, we will fall short of our potential,” he said. “Being a North Dakotan is a choice. It’s a powerful and compelling choice.”

Tribal, judicial addresses return

Burgum’s address followed the return of two speeches that were canceled two years ago amid security concerns over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests: the tribal-state relationship and state of the judiciary addresses.

Spirit Lake Nation Chairwoman Myra Pearson highlighted the tribe’s efforts to increase homeownership and employment opportunities. But she also cited challenges dealing with substance abuse and drug trafficking, warning that the tribe is operating with a “skeletal” Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement service, “minimal mental health services” and “limited outpatient addiction treatment.”

Pearson also called on policymakers to address “systemic inequities, bridge gaps in our justice systems and support important legislative changes to safeguard our women, children and men.” She noted indigenous women face higher rates of violence by pointing to the high-profile deaths of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind and Olivia Lone Bear.

“All too often, justice eludes the families in such cases,” said Pearson, who will leave her post in May after 18 years as chairwoman.

Pearson said she hopes tribal and state leaders will work together “as a people, people of North Dakota.”

In an interview after her speech, Pearson said tribal and state officials have solid working relationships despite tensions stemming from the pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She said she “kind of boycotted” Bismarck after being removed from the Capitol while a protest took place across the street, but she credited Burgum for visiting Spirit Lake several times and consulting with the tribes.

“I had a feeling when I met him that he was a good man,” Pearson said. “With him there, I think there’s going to be a lot of change.”

In his address to lawmakers, North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle warned the state’s court system is now “underwater” after cutting nearly 56 positions due to statewide budget strains two years ago. He asked for six more staff positions and the creation of a new judgeship in the south-central region of the state, where he said there has been a steady increase in case filings over the past decade.

VandeWalle also highlighted plans to remodel the law library, a proposal to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 10 years old and the progress of a new domestic violence court.

VandeWalle assured lawmakers the governmental branch he oversees strives for a “judicial system that is fair, timely and accessible to all.”

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