Declining oil revenues challenge next North Dakota governor

Doug Burgum
In this Dec. 15, 2011 file photo Doug Burgum talks about his family's $500,000 donation to the new creativity center at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR Photo 2011

Republican Doug Burgum completed his outsider push to North Dakota's governorship on Tuesday, sweeping aside a poorly funded Democratic challenger after earlier overcoming the GOP establishment to become his party's nominee.

Burgum will take power next month against the backdrop of a state economy that has cooled as oil and crop prices have slumped, and where international attention is focused on a contentious protest over an oil pipeline.

"We have a big job ahead," the 60-year-old Fargo businessman and onetime Microsoft Corp. executive told The Associated Press on Tuesday, before polls had closed.

Burgum walloped Rolla Rep. Marvin Nelson in the state that has not had a Democratic governor since 1992.

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Burgum entered the election with his toughest campaigning is behind him, after defeating North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in June in the Republican primary for governor. The GOP battle between Burgum and Stenehjem featured a spirited and expensive debate about which candidate was better suited to revive the state economy that once was among the nation's most robust.

Burgum painted Stenehjem as part of an establishment that has done a poor job at managing money and has put the state's future in doubt. The Fargo multimillionaire's allegations raised the ire of most in the GOP's Republican-led Legislature that he accused of "runaway spending."

While sticking to themes of budget discipline, job creation and opposition to tax increases on the campaign trial, he has spent much of the time leading up to the general election behind the scenes mending fences with lawmakers.

"We have been very focused on trying to build relationships with those that share our views on what needs to be done," he told the AP.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo and his Republican Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner of Dickinson, said they and other GOP lawmakers will find common ground with Burgum.

"Sure that good 'ol boy thing stung a little bit but the point is he's an "R'' and he's our governor," Carlson said. "We're ready to work with him to do what's best for North Dakota."

North Dakota has risen from the nation's ninth-leading oil producer to No. 2 behind Texas in the past decade. But with depressed oil and crop prices, outgoing GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who did not seek re-election, ordered cuts government agencies and a massive raid on the state's savings to make up for a more than $1.6 billion shortfall caused by incorrect budget forecasts and the drop in tax revenue.

The new governor also will inherit the issue of the Dakota Access pipeline protests that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others have been fighting to halt. Opponents say the four-state $3.8 billion pipeline would threaten the water supply for millions of people. Supporters say the pipeline is a safer way to move oil than trucks and trains.

Burgum said the issue at present is on Dalrymple's "watch," though he said he supports both "peaceful protest" and "private property rights."

Burgum is known in North Dakota as the godfather of software for building Fargo's Great Plains Software into a billion-dollar business, which he later sold to Microsoft. He is the latest Republican to try to turn business experience into political success on the state level. Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Bruce Rauner of Illinois took similar paths to office in recent years.

Burgum has promised in television advertisements to refuse a salary and a state pension if he's elected to be North Dakota's governor, even though state law does not allow that and similar moves in the past have drawn criticism.

He also will be first to reside in the North Dakota's new $5 million governor's residence that is under construction, with completion slated for late next year.

Burgum, who is divorced, is engaged to marry Kathryn Helgaas of Fargo. He said a wedding date hasn't been set.