Bill seeks costs of governor’s security, travel

AP Photo North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum delivers his budget address before a joint session of the North Dakota legislature in Bismarck.

BISMARCK (AP) — A North Dakota lawmaker is pushing a measure that would require disclosing the costs of providing security for the governor, lieutenant governor and their families, and better documentation of their travel.

Republican Rep. Bill Devlin’s bill introduced late Wednesday comes after questions from lawmakers, The Associated Press and other media about the level of personal security for Gov. Doug Burgum. It also comes in the wake of a state audit last year that said the wealthy first-term GOP governor inappropriately used state aircraft for personal travel, something Burgum has denied.

“This is about transparency and the accountability of taxpayers’ money,” said Devlin, a retired newspaper owner and longtime lawmaker. “There should not even be a question about this — especially from a governor who campaigned on transparency.”

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Thursday that the governor had not seen the measure and likely would not comment even if he had.

“We generally don’t comment on bills until they reach his desk and we don’t comment on his security,” Nowatzki said.

Security at the North Dakota Capitol was beefed up in 2016 due to protests involving the Dakota Access pipeline, the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline that lawmakers said put a burden on law enforcement and the state Highway Patrol, which provides security for the governor and the Capitol.

Two years after the protests ended and the pipeline began operating, increased security measures remain in place, including metal detectors and more troopers patrolling in and around the building. Troopers, both in uniform and plainclothes, also routinely can be seen with Burgum at events across the state and at the Capitol, something that was rare or nonexistent in previous administrations.

Lawmakers and the AP last year began questioning the level of security and costs, but the governor and Highway Patrol has claimed the records are protected by state laws that were put on the books following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Democratic Rep. Corey Mock led the lawmakers’ effort, saying the information is needed for budget reasons. Legislative lawyers continue to argue that the records are not protected by state law.

Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney who represents media outlets on issues regarding the state’s open records and meetings laws, said he supports Devlin’s measure.

Devlin, Mock, and McDonald said the intent is not to jeopardize security for the governor, but to find costs associated with it.

Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Brandon Solberg said the agency sought its own legal opinion from agency lawyers and was told it did not have to disclose security costs for the governor. Troopers have released some costs related to security but not specifically for the governor.

Burgum last year ordered state agencies to reduce staffing by 5 percent in their two-year budget proposals. Troopers followed the directive, cutting the required number of personnel, but Burgum did not include those cuts in his budget plan.

Burgum, who campaigned on a message of “reinventing government,” shaking up the “good old boy” party establishment and reining in “runaway spending,” was criticized in February for attending the Super Bowl in Minneapolis as a guest of Xcel Energy, which serves nearly 100,000 customers in North Dakota. The governor said before the game that he planned to use the opportunity to talk with Xcel officials about their service and infrastructure in the state.

After the criticism, Burgum reimbursed the Minneapolis utility for $37,000 in costs related to the trip. He said he wanted to eliminate any perception of a conflict of interest.

That was followed by a state audit report in June that concluded, among other things, that Burgum, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, office staff and first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum used state airplanes for questionable purposes, including commuting to their homes outside the state capital.

Burgum has said all of the trips were related to state business.