As Gov. Doug Burgum outlines plans to reinvent North Dakota’s budgeting process, Democrats are calling for a bipartisan commission to be involved.
Burgum announced this week he’s asking most state agencies to identify spending cuts of 5 to 10 percent for the next two-year budget cycle and reduce state employees by 5 percent.
The Republican governor said Friday he wants to get away from a traditional budget process that involves incremental adjustments and, instead, focus on finding efficiencies and improving outcomes.
“We’ve got to think more strategically,” Burgum said during a meeting of the Bismarck Tribune editorial board. “We have to harvest dollars from what we’re doing now and move it into new things.”
Though North Dakota has positive economic indicators heading into the 2019-2021 budget cycle, the state had to deplete reserves by $800 million in 2017 to balance the budget.
Burgum also asked agencies to identify another 3 percent that could be cut if the state sees a downturn in oil or agriculture. K-12 state school aid and Medicaid would not be affected by the guidelines.
On Friday, the state’s Democratic-NPL Party called for a bipartisan commission to review budget priorities in response to Burgum’s “radical vision.”
"There's nothing innovative or strategic about an 8 to 13 percent across-the-board budget cut,” said House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks. “As much as the governor touts ‘reinventing government’ in North Dakota, this budget proposal leaves working families underserved and puts the state on shaky financial ground.”
Democrats are asking Burgum to convene a public-private task force, including community and business leaders and members of both parties, to develop priorities for the state.
“Now’s the time to think big,” Mock said.
In response for the call for a bipartisan commission, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the budget guidelines are the first step in a long strategic planning process.
“North Dakota already has a bipartisan body that reviews the state’s priorities for the purposes of setting the budget — it’s called the Legislature,” Nowatzki said.
Every agency won’t necessarily see the same percentage cut because the goal is to strategically decide where to invest and where not to invest, according to Burgum.
“At the end of the process, individual results may vary,” Burgum said.
In May, state agencies will begin the strategic review process.
“Some agencies are looking at it as an opportunity and know that it can be a driver for good change,” said Joe Morrissette, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Burgum said he wants to break down silos within state government and identify processes that can be done differently or eliminated.
“We’re trying to have a real look at the things that don’t matter to anybody,” Burgum said. “What are the things that are not adding value? What are the mind-numbing, bureaucratic things that we’re asking state team members to do that we could stop doing?”
One example Burgum offered is the state has 800 legacy information technology programs. The Information Technology Department spends 91 percent of its time operating those legacy systems, 9 percent of its time growing existing system and zero time on transformation, Burgum said.
“Let’s figure out a way to decommission some of this stuff so they can actually work on the transformation piece of this,” Burgum said.
Mock said he's not optimistic the governor will find significant cost savings after previous rounds of spending cuts.
“The agencies that are going to be asked to trim, there's nothing left to trim," Mock said.
Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said Friday he’s open to hearing Burgum’s ideas on reinventing government.
“If he’s got some ideas on how we can save money on reorganization, we’ll be open to that,” said Martinson, a member of House Appropriations.
Legislators will receive Burgum’s budget recommendations in December and will develop their own budgets during the legislative session that begins in January.
“We’re just at the beginning of the conversation,” said Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck.
Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said Friday she’s concerned about the state potentially cutting 5 percent of its full-time employees.
“These services require people to deliver them,” Oban said. “When we talk about cuts to FTEs and public employees, these aren’t just positions. These are the people who administer services that North Dakotans rely on.”