In State of the State address, Burgum honors late Grand Forks senator and police officer, touts UND research
The annual address was a chance for Gov. Doug Burgum to outline the stakes of the coming session and spotlight state success stories. Grand Forks received several mentions.
As Gov. Doug Burgum drew his State of the State speech to a close Tuesday afternoon, he mentioned former state Sen. Lonnie Laffen and his “sudden, tragic passing” last month following a heart attack at 62. He recalled Laffen’s belief that the senator had won the proverbial lottery three times — being born in the United States, growing up in small-town North Dakota and living and working in Grand Forks.
It was one of the final anecdotes in an hour-long speech kicking off the state Legislature’s biennial session in Bismarck, during which legislators will now grapple with the biggest set of challenges the state has faced in generations. COVID-19 has rattled the state economy and health care system, and farmers have continued to face struggles with flooding and drought.
Burgum, conjuring that idea of a lottery ticket, challenged the Legislature to think of their work on behalf of the North Dakotans still to come.
"The lottery ticket that we hold in our hands is theirs, not ours,” Burgum said. “Let us invest it wisely in their future."
It was one of the more vivid moments in the address, during which Burgum also honored slain Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte, killed in the line of duty in May.
Mostly, though, the address was a chance for Burgum to outline the stakes of the coming session and spotlight state success stories. Grand Forks received several mentions.
Burgum touted UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center — where he praised big energy research projects of the future — and acknowledged the state’s commitment to the unmanned aircraft industry, which is largely headquartered in and around Grand Forks.
Many Grand Forks observers approved of the governor’s optimistic tone, though state Rep. Mary Adams, D-Grand Forks, added a note of concern. While it’s heartening to hear about big state plans for infrastructure projects in the next biennium, she worried what the pandemic downturn could mean for other state spending in higher education and more.
“I worry about our streets and our bridges. We've got big potholes in Grand Forks,” she said, acknowledging state plans to boost infrastructure spending. “But I think people are a little bit more important than roads. You have to think about who it all affects down the line."
Some of that concern could be blunted by new money set aside for colleges and universities. The governor briefly mentioned his hopes to establish a “higher education stabilization and transformation fund,” which was notable for multiple Grand Forks observers. Barry Wilfahrt, who heads the local Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that it could mean far less concern for state-funded jobs at UND during budget season.
"Anything that will help stabilize UND is music to our ears as a community,” Wilfahrt said.
Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said the speech offered multiple cues for local leaders — one of the most notable being the state’s continued interest in partnering on big local infrastructure projects. Within the last month, that’s already boosted hopes that an underpass at Demers Avenue and 42nd Street could win state funding.
And state Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, said he was pleased to hear the governor strike a positive tone for the coming year. That, alongside the governor touting the value of Grand Forks’ technical, scientific expertise — and the possibility of state funding for infrastructure — were top-of-mind as the governor concluded.
"The thing that I always appreciate with Doug is his optimism,” Meyer said.