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Jacobs: Lack of legislative harness gives zealots free rein

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Jacobs: Lack of legislative harness gives zealots free rein
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Watching the 2013 edition of the North Dakota Legislature makes a body pine for the days when Earl Strinden was in charge.

Strinden was the Republican leader in the North Dakota House for two decades, extending from the mid-1970s into the 1990s. Most of the time, he was the majority leader, and there's no doubt that he was always in charge.

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Strinden, who represented Grand Forks, had his critics. Some political enemies thought he was a dictator. He was called "The Earl of Strinden" and even, sometimes, "The Duke of Earl."

I was a legislative reporter for much of his tenure, and I watched him daily. In fact, he used to practice his floor speeches on me. The Grand Forks Herald was an afternoon newspaper in those days, and I arrived at the Capitol by 5 a.m. or so in order to meet a 7 a.m. deadline. Strinden was always there before I was, and he frequently popped into the press room to deliver a speech he was planning for the afternoon floor session. This had a couple of advantages for him, and one huge boon for me. It meant I had the gist of his argument in time for my deadline. Plus, I had time to seek out responses, making my stories more complete than they otherwise would have been. This was fine with Strinden. He appreciated an audience -- in person and in the afternoon Grand Forks Herald.

Hard work was the hallmark of Strinden's tenure. He knew the power of knowledge. He always prepared carefully. He anticipated arguments and sought to respond to them before they arose. His persuasive ability was astonishing. Even doubters came to see his point of view.

What's more, Strinden always operated within a legislative framework. He worked with his colleagues to set priorities and then to pursue them. And he didn't tolerate distractions. "We headed them off," he said.

These specifically included endless arguments about abortion, a hot-button issue then as now. Abortion bills didn't make progress in Strinden's Legislature. He just didn't see the issue as central to the state's concern.

In contrast, this session of the Legislature has been obsessed with the abortion issue. The other day, a colleague commented that lawmakers seem intent on protecting the fetus, but as soon as it is delivered, their responsibility stops. This was in reference to a bill that would allow the sale of bottle rockets. It could apply to the Legislature's indifference to education bills, too. The concentration on abortion legislation gives the lie to the anti-spending mantra current in this session, too, because it's going to cost money to defend these bills against inevitable constitutional challenges.

Nobody in this legislative leadership tried to head these off.

In contrast to Strinden's careful management of issues and processes in the Legislature, the current Republican House leader is a legislative loose-cannon with plenty of targets but no careful aim. There's no apparent legislative agenda. No framework. No harness, so to speak. And so zealotry has free rein.

This session's House leader is behind legislation that would gut the State Board of Higher Education. He sponsored amendments that would endanger flood protection for Fargo, his hometown. And who can forget last session, when his meddling in the controversy about the University of North Dakota's nickname and logo brought on a special election and public rejection of the logo.

Or should we thank him for finally putting the issue to rest?

Strinden managed issues across the hallway, as well. He took care to involve the Senate in his program, and there was usually little disagreement on final products.

Contrast this with last week's vote on an oil tax. The House rejected the Senate's tax reform bill, even though it's been a centerpiece of the Senate's leadership agenda.

The wisdom of the reform aside -- and I'm not a fan -- the collapse of leadership is notable.

A number of large issues arose during Strinden's tenure. The most divisive, probably, was the severance tax on coal. Another was funding for public schools. Still a third was the state's Social Service system -- one of Strinden's particular interests. His even-handed and far-sighted concern helped position North Dakota as one of only a few states that has a working system that hasn't crippled the state budget.

All in all, it's an enviable record -- one that makes a body wish "The Earl" were still in charge.

Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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