Gov. Doug Burgum used his State of the State address on Tuesday to convey optimism about North Dakota’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, while making a pitch for lawmakers to endorse his budget proposals that he said would benefit residents for generations.
“This (coronavirus) battle is far from over. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we have the tools to get us there,” the Republican governor told a joint session of the Legislature.
North Dakota had led the country in per capita cases for many weeks until a steady decline that started in mid-November. That also coincided with a two-thirds decline in hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
“Fortunately, we have new tools at our disposal to fight COVID," including vaccines, Burgum said.
Burgum’s speech came shortly after the Legislature opened its 2021 regular session. During the Legislature’s organizational session a month ago, Burgum outlined his spending blueprint in a separate address, and his Tuesday speech contained many of the same themes.
Burgum last month unveiled a $15 billion budget that increases state spending by 2% and includes a $1.25 billion bonding package largely aimed at funding statewide infrastructure projects. Republicans and Democrats also will push separate but similar bonding proposals, using interest from the state’s multibillion-dollar oil tax piggybank to pay off the bonds.
The governor's budget is the second-biggest proposed by a governor in state history. He appealed to lawmakers to back his proposal, saying “we have a historic opportunity to invest in infrastructure, diversify the economy, build healthy, vibrant communities, support research and innovation, transform government and build true legacy projects for the prosperity of North Dakotans for generations to come.”
Burgum’s address Tuesday was his fifth since being elected in 2016. Many of his budget priorities in the past have failed to pass the GOP-led Legislature’s scrutiny.
The governor during his speech also announced a new reporting system for oil and other hazardous material spills, as well as a new public spills database.
The public can view the state's database at www.spill.nd.gov. It includes reports the state compiles on individual spills and reflects spills reported to the state since Jan. 1. Information on incidents that occurred before 2021 can be viewed in the state's old database on the Department of Environmental Quality website.
Oil companies and other businesses responsible for spills can report incidents at www.spill.nd.gov or by calling 1-833-997-7455.
“This simplified system gives producers and the public a one-stop option for reporting hazardous material spills instead of having to report spills to multiple state agencies, thereby enhancing the state’s spill response and transparency,” Burgum said. “Through increased collaboration and unified reporting, our state agencies are now better prepared to protect North Dakota’s water, air and soil.”
Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota appealed to Burgum and lawmakers to speed coronavirus vaccinations for tribal members and help bolster infrastructure and law enforcement on the state’s five American Indian reservations.
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox told the joint session of the House and Senate that crime, drug abuse and poverty are serious problems on reservations, and that unemployment can reach as high as 80%.
“The lack of jobs on Indian reservations is why we can’t overcome poverty,” he said. “Education is key to making a difference to where we want to go in the future.”
Since 1985, a tribal chairman from one of North Dakota’s five reservations has given a speech to the Legislature.
The Three Affiliated Tribes and the state have long been at odds over shared tax revenue on the Fort Berthold Reservation that is in the sweet spot of the Bakken formation and the Three Forks directly beneath it. Fox renewed a call Tuesday for more equitable tax agreements between the state and tribes.
Since 2007, the state and the tribes have shared more than $2 billion in oil tax revenue.
Fox said revenue has dropped more than 70% on the reservation since the beginning of the pandemic.
North Dakota Chief Justice Jon Jensen wants state lawmakers to support a study of the state juvenile justice process in North Dakota.
The chief justice made his appeal after the speech by the tribal chairman.
The legislative study is part of a House bill that requires “a review of effective intervention, resources and services for children.”
The study could result in legislation in the next session.
Jensen also wants lawmakers to fund projects that include remodeling the state’s law library to make better use of that space, as well as an upgraded “document management system” for the state’s juvenile courts and the state Supreme Court.
Democratic-NPL Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen in a response to Burgum's speech highlighted what the minority party believes are serious problems in North Dakota under GOP leadership.
“Our strength is in our work ethic, our independence, and our bank of incredible natural resources. But skyrocketing rent, increasing costs of child care, limited access to affordable health care, lack of support for education, inadequate investment in local infrastructure, and the systemic racism that underlines this all, is preventing our communities and working families from living the lives they are capable and deserving of," she said. "North Dakotans deserve far better than we are getting from the majority party.”
Republicans control the House 80-14 and the Senate 40-7.
Bismarck Tribune staff contributed to this report.