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Mike Jacobs: Lawmakers set to challenge governor

Poor Doug Burgum! So many ideas and so little power. So many votes, but none where it counts. As governor, Burgum has a nice title and a bully pulpit, but not much clout.

That's the reality in North Dakota government.

Legislative leaders delivered a reality check last week, when they changed the rules about how budget bills will be handled. The change is a minor one, but it delivered a firm message: The governor is not in charge here.

This is a hard lesson and by all appearances, Gov. Burgum didn't take it very well. That's easy enough to understand. He got 260,000 votes to win the governorship two years ago. Between them, the legislators who delivered the message early Wednesday had won fewer than 21,000 votes in four separate districts.

Crucially, however, Burgum himself has no legislative experience, while the most junior member of the delegation has served in 10 sessions. For Burgum, leadership and decision-making have occurred in corporate boardrooms where business success was the objective, and everyone in the room shared a single goal.

Things are a little more complicated than that in state government.

Burgum's visitors were the majority leaders and appropriations committee chairs in each of the two houses. The meeting took place early Wednesday, just ahead of the governor's budget speech outlining his budget proposals. These won't be introduced as bills, legislative leaders told Burgum. This amounts to taking back a courtesy past sessions had extended. In practice, Office of Management and Budget, which reports to the governor, filed bills. Budget bills will come from the Legislative Council this session; the governor's proposals will be attached, but not written into the legislation. Legislative leaders presented this as a housekeeping measure that would eliminate dealing with two separate bills, thus reducing confusion and increasing transparency.

It also could save time and paper, but all of these are collateral benefits. As so often happens in politics, small actions send larger messages. Changes that make real improvements sometimes arise from other motives and have other impacts.

Such was the case last week. This simple change in the budgeting process is meant to chasten the governor, to put him in his place and to reclaim legislative prerogative after a series of gubernatorial vetoes last session.

The move can also be seen as a warning that Burgum's ideas about government and government spending could face significant challenges in the Legislature.

Certainly the speech got a chilly reception. The governor himself appeared tense; his delivery was uncharacteristically flat and lawmakers were mostly unresponsive. In 50 minutes there were three moments of applause: when Burgum announced programs for veterans, when he introduced Kathryn Helgaas, his wife, and at the end of the speech.

Opening day at the Legislature exposed one of the fault lines in one-party government, the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches. That was the root of executive vetoes at the end of last session. Legislative leaders reacted by asserting their own prerogatives, and more exercises of legislative power can be expected.

The governor's spending proposals present other opportunities. One is a basic question: How should the state manage its wealth?

Burgum's budget includes funds to match private investments. There were surprises, including $50 million for a Theodore Roosevelt presidential library in Medora. There was $35 million for a new Behavioral Health State Hospital and Clinic in Jamestown, which would allow converting the existing hospital as "a minimum-custody correctional facility for men," which in turn could lead to moving the women's prison from New England to Bismarck. There was $30 million for a system to track drones. The Grand Sky business park at Grand Forks would get $3 million and the International Peace Garden near Dunseith would get $5 million. Any of these projects could draw opposition; the presidential library might be most vulnerable.

The spending list includes $20 million for "Invest ND," the power of which would increase with expected match dollars. Notably missing is any research money earmarked for the state's two research universities, whose presidents had campaigned for $100 million, divided equally between them. It would come to $25 million each for each year of the biennial budget cycle.

Much of the money would come from "earnings" from the Legacy Fund, built on oil taxes. Although Burgum doesn't propose "tapping the fund;" instead, his plans would use the interest accrued. Already, some lawmakers have suggested making the fund harder to get at.

Burgum didn't mention his plan to change how the state's higher education system is governed. Last month a task force that he appointed recommended replacing the Board of Higher Education with three separate boards. Burgum owns this idea so far, and it could become the acid test of his governorship — eclipsing the smaller challenges of the first week, but incorporating the same motive.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.