BISMARCK, N.D. — Tech executive-turned-governor Doug Burgum replaced his office desk chair with a wellness ball, assigned corporate titles to top subordinates and once wore jeans on the floor of the staid North Dakota Senate.

With a style reflective of Silicon Valley, the former Microsoft vice president bucked power brokers in his Republican Party to win the post leading the most conventional of state governments. In their latest of several conflicts, lawmakers are planning to sue Burgum over line-item vetoes they argue stepped too far onto their turf.

Such friction has been rare in North Dakota, so overwhelmingly Republican that Donald Trump carried it by 36 points last year. At the Capitol, the GOP controls more than 80 percent of both chambers.

“Republican legislators don’t want to be critical of a Republican governor, but I can safely say none of us have a working relationship with the governor,” said GOP Rep. Bob Martinson, who has worked with six other governors in his 45-year tenure, currently the longest in the state.

The veto dispute — which would be the first such challenge in the state Supreme Court in nearly four decades — stands to be an expensive example of a revamped GOP power structure that hasn’t yet figured out how to get along.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson said the veto lawsuit might have been avoided with better communication.

“If we had some idea he had concerns, we could have worked them out,” Carlson said.

Burgum and lawmakers also clashed over how much the governor could pay in staff bonuses as well as over upgrades to a new $5 million governor’s mansion. He volunteered to pay for such improvements as a skylight and heated garage floor out of his own pocket, but legislative leaders rejected the idea that Burgum should be able to influence the design decisions even if he bankrolls them.

In an interview, Burgum dismissed the suggestion of any tension with lawmakers, pointing to hundreds of bills they passed and he signed. He was particularly irked by the idea he has been less accessible than previous governors.

“Any time legislators ask for a meeting they get them,” Burgum said.

Burgum, 61, is a small-town North Dakota success story. He received an MBA from Stanford, and in 1983, mortgaged the family farm near Arthur to join a startup company, Great Plains Software. Later, as CEO, he took the company public before selling it to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion. He then ran Microsoft’s business software division from Fargo, the state’s largest and most liberal city.

During his campaign for governor, Burgum often talked about shaking up the “good old boy” party establishment and reining in “runaway spending” as the state’s oil boom was fading.

The message, pressed in mostly self-funded TV ads, rankled some legislators. So did Burgum’s decision to run against Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, the party-backed candidate, in last year’s primary. Burgum easily won both the primary and general elections.

Once at the Capitol, he brought a more corporate mindset to the governor’s offices. He pledged to “reinvent state government” and run the state like a business, hiring former executives from his tech business as “chief administrative officer” and “chief operating officer” to lead his state team.

Additionally, his two top policy advisers are still in their 20s, a notable contrast in an older body that runs toward farmers, ranchers and retired military veterans. Some lawmakers quietly call them Burgum’s “wonderkids,” and Burgum himself, “Bill Gates lite.” The Microsoft billionaire gave $100,000 to Burgum’s campaign.

Since his arrival, Carlson, the House majority leader, has kept a wellness ball in his own office as a gag.

Then there are the jeans. Burgum is well-known for preferring to go casual, which has caused some lawmakers to privately grumble in a building where suits and ties are the norm. In February, Burgum was invited to leave the Senate floor after he posed for a picture with a school group while wearing jeans. A Burgum spokesman said he meant no disrespect to the chamber’s rules.

Burgum isn’t backing away from changing how the Capitol works. He said running the state like a business will result in better efficiencies and customer service.

“Business principles need to be applied,” Burgum said. “Taxpayer expectations are getting higher and higher.”

Burgum hasn’t only talked of pinching pennies. He has pitched transforming downtown areas throughout the state into vibrant social and economic hubs that are attractive to live in, while finding ways to diversify a state economy largely dependent on oil and agriculture.

Martinson, the longtime GOP legislator, said Burgum can do more to flesh out that vision for the state.

Fargo Democratic Rep. Joshua Boschee agreed.

“There have been no details. It’s just a concept and it’s not a new concept,” Boschee said. “Where are the details?”

Burgum said he’s been working with local communities on the idea, created a website, and may propose legislation prior to the next session to advance the idea. One idea he offered — allowing parking meters in the only state that does not, as a way to increase turnover in commercial districts — went nowhere this year.

Rep. Rick Becker, a Bismarck Republican who also ran for governor last year, has no problem with Burgum’s approach so far.

“That’s how he presented himself and that’s how he’s been,” Becker said. “I appreciate the dude believes in what his role is and I admire that. We need a little more friction between the legislative and executive branches.”


This version corrects a title to chief administrative officer.