GRAND FORKS — Over the weekend, Arizona Republicans formally rebuked three of the party’s most prominent members: the sitting governor, a former senator and Cindy McCain, the wife of the party’s 2008 presidential candidate.
Conditions in North Dakota’s Republican Party aren’t that dramatic. Perhaps the key difference is that North Dakota Republicans have a stranglehold on the state, occupying every elective statewide and federal office and commanding veto-proof majorities in the Legislature.
That hasn’t prevented fissures in the party, however, several of them highly visible.
There’s the rift between the governor and the Legislature, for example. This has been on full display in January, as the biennial meeting of the Legislature got underway. Gov. Doug Burgum’s bonding proposal seems to be the first victim.
Burgum’s initial proposal, presented to the organizational session in early December, included:
- $700 million for infrastructure for loans to political subdivisions for water, roads and bridges.
- $323 million in community block grants.
- $45 million in cost-sharing to establish and open local career academies, once of Burgum’s pet projects.
- $182 million “to address maintenance and repair issues with state facilities that have gone unaddressed for too long.”
These details are from a news release issued by the Burgum’s office.
Legislators trimmed Burgum’s $1.25 billion proposal first to about $900 million and then to $700 million. Worse still, lawmakers sharply limited what projects might be eligible for bonding.
This is all preliminary, of course; there’s time for compromise. Crossover is Feb. 26, a month away. That's the day that bills originating in one house must be moved to the other. Adjournment is more distant. The 80-day constitutional limit runs out on April 30.
The iron rule of fiscal negotiations in the Legislature is this: It’s hard to add money back once it’s been taken out. In other words, the threshold for bonding is likely to be far lower than the governor suggested — if there’s any at all. There are “cash cranks” in the state House who argue that spending should be on a cash-only basis. If that philosophy prevails, bonding could be sunk.
Uneasiness between lawmakers and the governor is evident in other ways, markedly in legislative reaction to Burgum’s involvement in last year’s election campaigns. The Dakota Leadership Committee, made up of Burgum loyalists and reliant on Burgum’s largesse, spent $2.7 million in statewide races last year. Some of this was directed at legislative candidates, including the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
That convoluted story has taken up quite a lot of space here; the latest development is that Republicans legislators have moved to codify the state Supreme Court’s decision that a dead man could indeed win an election. Burgum had argued that the governor could appoint a successor, but the court ruled that the local district committee could fill the vacancy, just as the law provides for deaths or resignations of sitting members. It’s significant that the seat in question had been held by Rep. Jeff Delzer, the Appropriations Committee chairman — a legislator who must be heard if he’s not heeded.
A noteworthy objection came from columnist Rob Port, who essentially chose sides in the argument by arguing that Burgum had been right to make the appointment, and the rush to codify the Supreme Court’s ruling, which Port dismissed as “wrong,” only proved the point. After all, he argued, if the court were right, precedent should stand, and the law wouldn’t need to be changed.
Still another tremor of discontent emerged when Rep. Jeff Magrum introduced legislation that would limit a sitting governor’s involvement in campaign financing. This has been described as unconstitutional, but it indicates a level of anger at Burgum’s activism. It goes without saying that Magrum was a target of Burgum’s funding barrage.
Magrum, by the way, is a member of the Bastiat Caucus, a rump group of right-wingers in the Legislature led by Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck. The caucus claims two dozen or more members but doesn’t share a membership list — leading Port to label the caucus “an embarrassment.” His criticism of Becker is even more harsh. A usually reliable voice of conservativism in the state, Port has apparently decided to come in from the cold.
None of this is unexpected, given the overwhelming Republican majorities in the Legislature. Nor is legislative pushback against a predatory governor at all surprising.
Burgum has said relations between his office and the Legislature are the best they’ve ever been. From a distance, and through the lens of media reporting rather than personal observation, it appears that the governor might be the only one who thinks so.
There’s an important difference between the theatrics in Arizona and the machinations in North Dakota. In North Dakota, Republican hegemony is in no danger; in Arizona, Republicans failed to carry the state in the presidential race and lost a Senate seat, as well. The seat in question? The one once held by John McCain.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.