ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Jacobs: North Dakota Democrats show signs of life

The North Dakota Legislature finished its 20th day Monday, so a quarter of its allotted time is gone. So far, the session has proceeded pretty much as expected.

The North Dakota Legislature finished its 20th day Monday, so a quarter of its allotted time is gone. So far, the session has proceeded pretty much as expected. Higher education has been banged up, losing the chair of its governing board. Common Core has been controversial, drawing the biggest hearing of the session so far. There's anxiety about the budget as oil prices fall, oil producers tighten up, and job numbers and tax receipts dwindle.
One thing is a bit surprising, though. The third of legislators outside the governing party have stirred, showing signs of building an authentic opposition rather than remaining just a bunch of docile Democrats. Evidence of Democratic stirring has shown up on several fronts, and each shows an approach to issues different than that espoused by the dominant Republicans. One of these was completely predictable: Democrats want to roll back voter identification requirements put in place by the last session. These complicated voting, especially in districts with large populations of students. That ran against the much touted idea that they would make voting in the state “as easy as pie.” Of course, Democrats in North Dakota and nationally have favored the least restrictive requirements for voting on the simple - and provable - theory that the more people vote, the more Democrats are elected. This session, Democrats appear to want to give North Dakotans something to vote for, an alternative to the longest stretch of one-party control of the governorship in the state’s history. This showed up last week, when Democrats presented a new model for promotion and regulation of the oil industry, which is perhaps the issue of greatest consequence in the state in these extraordinary times. Democrats would split responsibility for promotion and regulation. Promotion would be the purview of the state Commerce Department, which is headed by a gubernatorial appointee. Regulation would remain with the Industrial Commission, which is made of three elected officials, the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. This troika is a legacy of the Nonpartisan League, which created it to operate the state-owned industries, including the bank and the mill and elevator. Oil regulation was pasted into the portfolio when oil production began in the early 1950s. Democrats would require members of the commission to sign off on any amendment of fines for offending oil producers and related companies. This is an effort to dip the commission’s wrists into the brine spills becoming increasingly common in the state - somewhere around 8,000 of them so far, including a very big one on Blacktail Creek in Williams County last month. This initiative appears to respond to bad publicity about the state’s regulatory structure that appeared in the New York Times in November. State officials defended rolling back fines for oil field incidents, but the charges stung. Democrats opened a budget initiative, as well - or rather two of them, showing a creative flexibility on this important question. The state should have gotten money to oil-producing counties much earlier, Democrats argued in response to the governor’s so-called “surge” of funding for roads and other infrastructure. At the same time, Democrats suggested a so-called “contingency budget” that could be put in place if oil prices stay low long enough to trigger tax concessions cleverly hidden in the oil production tax rates. Thus Democrats appear willing to use the state’s wealth at the same time as they are eager to safeguard it. This contrasts with a growing unease among Republicans, one of whom suggested the surge was “too rich” and several of whom now want to renege on the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. These notions are eerily reminiscent of attitudes that gripped the state in the wake of the oil price decline in the early 1980s. This session, Democrats seem more confident than they were two years ago, and in sessions before that, in fact since they were swept from power in the early 1990s. Perhaps they sense opportunity. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the most prominent of state Democrats and the only one in statewide office, appears to be fueling this attitude. She’s being coy about whether she’d leave her seat in the U.S. Senate to run for governor. On Friday, she told the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board, “What I’m doing is trying to figure out what this Congress is going to look like and how effective I can be in representing North Dakota.” A Heitkamp campaign seems unlikely. But even without her, Democrats seem to be showing signs of life. For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This column resurrects the name - and the spirit - of that undertaking. Readers can contact Jacobs at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.The North Dakota Legislature finished its 20th day Monday, so a quarter of its allotted time is gone. So far, the session has proceeded pretty much as expected.Higher education has been banged up, losing the chair of its governing board. Common Core has been controversial, drawing the biggest hearing of the session so far. There's anxiety about the budget as oil prices fall, oil producers tighten up, and job numbers and tax receipts dwindle.
One thing is a bit surprising, though. The third of legislators outside the governing party have stirred, showing signs of building an authentic opposition rather than remaining just a bunch of docile Democrats.Evidence of Democratic stirring has shown up on several fronts, and each shows an approach to issues different than that espoused by the dominant Republicans.One of these was completely predictable: Democrats want to roll back voter identification requirements put in place by the last session. These complicated voting, especially in districts with large populations of students. That ran against the much touted idea that they would make voting in the state “as easy as pie.”Of course, Democrats in North Dakota and nationally have favored the least restrictive requirements for voting on the simple - and provable - theory that the more people vote, the more Democrats are elected.This session, Democrats appear to want to give North Dakotans something to vote for, an alternative to the longest stretch of one-party control of the governorship in the state’s history.This showed up last week, when Democrats presented a new model for promotion and regulation of the oil industry, which is perhaps the issue of greatest consequence in the state in these extraordinary times.Democrats would split responsibility for promotion and regulation.Promotion would be the purview of the state Commerce Department, which is headed by a gubernatorial appointee.Regulation would remain with the Industrial Commission, which is made of three elected officials, the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. This troika is a legacy of the Nonpartisan League, which created it to operate the state-owned industries, including the bank and the mill and elevator. Oil regulation was pasted into the portfolio when oil production began in the early 1950s.Democrats would require members of the commission to sign off on any amendment of fines for offending oil producers and related companies. This is an effort to dip the commission’s wrists into the brine spills becoming increasingly common in the state - somewhere around 8,000 of them so far, including a very big one on Blacktail Creek in Williams County last month.This initiative appears to respond to bad publicity about the state’s regulatory structure that appeared in the New York Times in November. State officials defended rolling back fines for oil field incidents, but the charges stung.Democrats opened a budget initiative, as well - or rather two of them, showing a creative flexibility on this important question.The state should have gotten money to oil-producing counties much earlier, Democrats argued in response to the governor’s so-called “surge” of funding for roads and other infrastructure. At the same time, Democrats suggested a so-called “contingency budget” that could be put in place if oil prices stay low long enough to trigger tax concessions cleverly hidden in the oil production tax rates.Thus Democrats appear willing to use the state’s wealth at the same time as they are eager to safeguard it. This contrasts with a growing unease among Republicans, one of whom suggested the surge was “too rich” and several of whom now want to renege on the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. These notions are eerily reminiscent of attitudes that gripped the state in the wake of the oil price decline in the early 1980s.This session, Democrats seem more confident than they were two years ago, and in sessions before that, in fact since they were swept from power in the early 1990s.Perhaps they sense opportunity.U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the most prominent of state Democrats and the only one in statewide office, appears to be fueling this attitude. She’s being coy about whether she’d leave her seat in the U.S. Senate to run for governor. On Friday, she told the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board, “What I’m doing is trying to figure out what this Congress is going to look like and how effective I can be in representing North Dakota.”A Heitkamp campaign seems unlikely. But even without her, Democrats seem to be showing signs of life.For several years in the 1970s, Jacobs published a newspaper called The Onlooker about North Dakota politics. This column resurrects the name - and the spirit - of that undertaking. Readers can contact Jacobs at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

What To Read Next
The Dickinson Press Editorial Board stands with the wild horses and calls on the National Park Service to extend public commentary period
“From the Hawks’ Nest” is a monthly column by Dickinson State University President Steve Easton
"Life is a team effort no matter what, and greed puts you out on a lonely limb," writes Kevin Holten.
"Our life of faith is a life with God. And that makes all the difference," writes Boniface Muggli