No doldrums ahead in North Dakota politics

Perhaps it is natural to feel a bit let down after so interesting, exasperating, divisive and ultimately indecisive a legislative session as we North Dakotans have just come through. This feeling seems rather like the nostalgia at the end of a sports season, after the trophy has been hoisted, polished and put on display, and players and spectators alike turn to other pursuits.

But fear not, political junkies. For our addiction, there is always a fix in the making.

No less than four big questions now present themselves in North Dakota politics:

Will lawmakers actually return to the Capitol to try to override Gov. Doug Burgum’s vetoes of their hard-won compromises?

What will be the nature of the interim, and even of the 2019 session?

How will the governor behave now that lawmakers are out of town, and he can concentrate on his own priorities?

What about the 2018 elections, now just 538 days away?

Two of these questions will be addressed on the last day of this month, when the Legislative Management Committee meets. This group has two important missions, both pressing. One is the potential recessed session. A majority of the committee’s members could make that happen.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairs that committee (for the third interim, not just the second as I said last week).

Holmberg is back from his post-session European trip, and I ran into him the other day. He didn’t say whether there will be a session, but he made a face that increased my confidence that lawmakers won’t be heading back to Bismarck any time soon.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude them reconvening later. They saved themselves three days of the 80-day limit the state constitution imposes on them each biennium. That’s just barely enough to introduce and pass legislation, in response — say — to changes in federal health care. It would take less time to act on gubernatorial vetoes, only a day, but that would leave too little time for a recessed session later.

Of course, none of this precludes the governor calling lawmakers back.

The Legislative Management Committee has another important role. It must arrange for the study of topics to present to the next session. Some of this work has been done, because lawmakers ordered some studies. Another big bunch of study recommendations must be waded through.

These studies tend to concentrate attention during the interim, and they can produce clarity about issues that will drive policy. In the last interim, studies of higher education and human services produced significant action in the session. Another of the study topics from that period didn’t produce anything definitive; more study of wind energy ahead, perhaps.

Nor is higher education overlooked. Governance of the state’s two-year colleges and its nursing education programs are on the study list.

The management committee points to another potential flashpoint in state politics: the future of the House majority leader, Al Carlson. In a stunning development at the end of the session, Gov. Burgum vetoed those parts of the Legislature’s grand compromise that Carlson had demanded.

The leader will likely want to attempt a veto override. He lacks decisive influence on the committee, however; Holmberg enjoys the support of all of the Senate members (Republicans and Democrats), as well as the Democratic members from the House — an effective majority.

On the last day of the session, Carlson told me it’s “pretty likely” he’ll be back in 2019, but speculation that he might retire has been spreading. With it, of course, comes speculation about who might be his successor, should he not be re-elected.

This question will continue to engage us until late next year.

The 2018 election has generated interest at another level. Republicans are gleefully anticipating victory in the U.S. Senate race. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, narrowly won the seat in 2012. She’s careful and crafty — and makes Republicans very, very cross.

Early on — and this is early, despite the noise — I’m betting on Heitkamp against any Republican opponent who’s so far been mentioned. These include, most prominently, Kevin Cramer, who bypassed the Republican Party convention to win endorsement and election to the U.S. House in 2012; state Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton, who has said he’ll run for the job that Cramer passes up, whether House or Senate; state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, a leader of the small-government caucus in the state House; and Rick Berg, former House leader and former U.S. House member who lost the 2012 race to Heitkamp.

These are known focal points of the state’s politics in the next 18 months. The less knowable is Burgum’s role in government. After six months in office, he remains a bit of an enigma.

Clearly he’s eager to make a very big impact, but equally clearly he’s feeling his way forward.

Of course, the unpredictable is always the most riveting, so Burgum’s playing this game well.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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