North Dakota Pipeline and Presidential Politics Take Center Stage at Final Governor's Debate

by | October 11, 2016 AT 12:15 PM

By John Hageman

The three candidates for North Dakota governor debated one final time Monday before the November election.

The roughly half-hour debate, sponsored by AARP in North Dakota and taped at Prairie Public Broadcasting in downtown Fargo, featured discussion on the state of North Dakota's budget, a large protest over an oil pipeline and caregiver services. Republican Doug Burgum faced off against Democrat Marvin Nelson and Libertarian Marty Riske.

A common theme throughout much of the debate was the state's fiscal situation. Slumping oil and farm commodity prices have forced North Dakota leaders to slash agency budgets, and the state Legislature met in a special session in August to pass a $310 million budget fix.

Asked what he would have done differently had he been governor, Burgum, a Fargo businessman, said he'd rather talk about what the state should do in the future.

"And I think going forward, it's important that we match our spending with our revenues," he said, adding the state should spend less, get better at forecasting tax revenues and improve its "risk management."

Nelson, a state representative from Rolla, said governors should listen to constituents in making budget decisions.

"The people a few years ago voted not to cut income tax, and yet, the leaders of the majority party continually cut income tax," he said. "The people instituted an oil tax, and then the majority party put in the trigger, then as an excuse to get rid of the trigger, they cut that tax."

Riske, a businessman in Fargo, called for independent audits of state government agencies. That will help identify ways to reduce the budget more precisely, rather than across-the-board cuts.

"An across-the-board cut is a reactionary thing, whereas precise cutting requires thought," Riske said, adding the state should look into duplication in higher education functions.

Pipeline discussion

The candidates also weighed in on the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, which has drawn thousands to a site south of Mandan. The proposed pipeline would run from western North Dakota to Illinois, but the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers over its authorization of the project in July, arguing it would harm cultural sites and water if it leaked.

Nelson said there were several problems with siting the project, which shows the need for change in the Public Service Commission. As for the governor's role in the protests, Nelson said he was disappointed "that there hasn't been a serious effort to try to get the different people in to talk to each other.

"Everything is just done through innuendo and through the news media and stuff," he said. Nelson said it seems the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was never consulted about how the pipeline would affect its water supply.

"There was an effort to consult them about the heritage sites, but never about their water," he said. "They do have a point."

Riske said he would have started negotiating the issue right away before "national influences" stepped in.

"President Obama did a troublesome thing when he came behind the federal judge and broke the rule of law," he said. While Riske said the project should move forward, he also advocated for making a deal with Native American leaders to address their concerns.

Burgum said there is an opportunity for "enhanced dialogue" over the protest, but he said the issue has grown much larger than the original debate about pipeline siting. He said he spoke with Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II over the phone last week, which Burgum said was an opportunity to listen to the tribal leader's concerns.

"We have to be a country that can create jobs and build infrastructure; we also have to be a country where we can listen to each other," he said. "I think there's a solution set out there, but there's not a solution set out there if the federal government is going to be trying to meddle in affairs that we should be able to handle here at a state level."

Presidential debate

The gubernatorial debate took place less than 24 hours after the second presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump. That debate featured a barrage of personal attacks and insults, but Monday's gubernatorial showdown was far more subdued.

After the Prairie Public debate, Burgum expressed shock and disappointment that the presidential process produced "two flawed candidates." But Burgum, who endorsed Trump in May, reiterated his stance Monday that it's important for North Dakota to have a Republican in the White House, given what he described as Clinton's anti-oil and anti-agriculture policies.

"Electing a president whose policies would be economically harmful to North Dakota is not a good thing," he said. "I don't think her policies are good for the country, but they're definitely not good for North Dakota."

Nelson said he's "there with Hillary," although he supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"Frankly, I think any vote that's not for Hillary is trying to put a mad man in charge of our country," he said.

Riske said his party's presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, would have brought more discussion about foreign policy and military spending.

"I always feel better about our debates than the national debates, because we are actually working hard to find solutions to the problems that North Dakota is faced with," he said.

The debate will air on Prairie Public at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

(c)2016 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)