‘Not a rubber stamp:' Taylor promises to be a voice for North Dakota farmers at Democratic convention
FARGO — Ryan Taylor promised Friday to be a voice for farmers and other North Dakotans instead of a “rubber stamp” for runaway energy development as he accepted the Democratic endorsement for agriculture commissioner.
Taylor, sounding a theme repeated by other candidates and speakers at the Democratic-NPL Party Convention in Fargo, said North Dakota needs state government that is more balanced and that doesn’t shirk its responsibility to punish industrial violators.
“Booms can harm agriculture and the industries that were there before,” he said, after citing problems stemming from the energy rush, including the Casselton derailment and explosion of crude oil tankers, the grain car shortage, and a livestock sales barn in Minot displaced by an energy company.
The agriculture commissioner is one of three members of the North Dakota Industrial Commission — along with the governor and attorney general — which regulates the oil and gas industry among other oversight roles.
Taylor, a fourth-generation rancher near Towner, said 75 percent of developed minerals have no connection to surface owners, and 50 percent of mineral payments go to out-of-state royalty holders.
“I believe the Oklahoma mineral owners seem pretty well-represented,” Taylor said. “I want to hear from the surface owners in North Dakota who have to farm around those wells.”
Taylor, who served for 10 years in the North Dakota Senate, was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2012, losing to Republican Jack Dalrymple.
North Dakota leaders have allowed the squandering of precious natural gas through flaring that could be used to heat homes, he said.
By some definitions — Taylor cited his old pickup and well-worn machinery as examples — the Democrat quipped that he qualified as conservative, a trait he acknowledged is widespread in North Dakota.
“But there’s nothing conservative about flaring a billion dollars of gas last year in North Dakota,” he said. “All the while that gas was flaring, we had farmers paying inflated prices for propane.”
Echoing a tone struck two years ago in his gubernatorial race, Taylor said he was not an enemy of responsible energy development.
“You have me as an ally and a friend as agriculture commissioner,” he said, summarizing his message to companies that abide by the rules. But for those who violate the law, he added, “I will not ignore your crimes.”
All of the candidates and their supporters bemoaned the Republican lock on state offices and said it was time to restore political balance in state government.
Tyler Axness, a state senator in Fargo and native of Leeds, is running for a seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and grain elevators and authorizes power lines and intrastate pipelines.
Axness criticized the Republican PSC for not fining a company for building and operating a pipeline illegally in the state for two years without a permit.
One commissioner, Axness said, declined to impose a fine because he worried that it might deter businesses from coming to the state. It appeared the PSC is more concerned with “special interests than the public interest,” he said.
“It’s either that or they’re asleep at the switch,” Axness added, “or I’m afraid it’s both.”
Jason Astrup, a business and tax lawyer in Fargo, was endorsed for the tax commissioner race, a seat now held by Republican Ryan Rauschenberger, whom Dalrymple appointed to the position to fill a vacancy.
“It’s time that we show the Republicans that their time of one-party arrogance has come to an end,” Astrup said. “It’s time to bring balance back to Bismarck.”
Noting prominent Democrats who are former tax commissioners, including Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Heidi Heitkamp — all later elected to the U.S. Senate — Astrup said the office is much more than merely collecting taxes and disseminating information about taxes.
“The tax commissioner needs to be a driving force in the state of North Dakota,” he said, noting the last two Republicans elected to hold the office left to become lobbyists.
Kiara Kraus-Parr, a Grand Forks lawyer and law school teacher, won the endorsement to oppose Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who has held the office for 14 years. She addressed the convention in a videotaped speech because she had a previous engagement out of state, a law school competition.
Kraus-Parr said Stenehjem, whom she characterized as an entrenched incumbent who has grown detached, was slow to acknowledge the spike in serious crime resulting from the oil boom.
“However, there is no solution forthcoming,” she said, adding that there are not enough police officers or judges to handle the increase in crimes.
Kraus-Parr also said a 24/7 alcohol monitoring program Stenehjem backed is a cumbersome and ineffective protection against drunken driving.
Noting the attorney general serves on the Industrial Commission, Kraus-Parr said Stenehjem shared blame for problems including the Casselton derailment.
“These are the consequences of having an attorney general in the office who puts special interests ahead of the public interest,” Kraus-Parr said.
The Democrats reconvene today at the Fargo Civic Center to finish endorsing their slate of candidates.