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Mike Jacobs: An early judgment of the Legislature

Consider the burden under which a weekly columnist must labor. Deadlines sometimes pass before news happens.

That is the case this week. The 65th Legislative Assembly continues in Bismarck as this is written, and it may continue as you read.

Nevertheless, some conclusions can be drawn, and those presented here are buttressed by action that has taken place already.

▇ The first conclusion is that the Legislature has taken a significant turn to the right. This is apparent in a number of ways, but potentially the most important is the emergence of the Bastiat Caucus. Named after a French economic thinker of the 19th Century, this group of 30 or so legislators has as its aim, "Make government smaller." That's my interpretation, not the members' own mission statement.

The Bastiat Caucus is not new, but the 2016 election increased its numbers, making it a larger presence in the Legislature. If the 2018 election brings in as many right-leaning legislators as the last election did—well, that would be a game-changer.

In this session, the Bastiat influence has been oblique. Members have helped pass legislation, especially regarding gun rights. Equally telling, Bastiat members have objected to such issues as mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in rental properties, while supporting looser regulations on sales of homemade baked goods.

Lest you think they chose high-touch issues only, they've voiced opposition to extraterritorial zoning for cities and tax exemptions for economic development, among other familiar "Main Street Republican" concerns.

Tax breaks and other economic incentives could become defining issues for future legislative sessions, with the members of the Bastiat Caucus opposing the efforts of Republicans who favor government action that favors private businesses.

You don't have to look far to find these. They held most of the important seats in state government while John Hoeven and Jack Dalrymple presided. The new governor, Doug Burgum, appears to share these views. He made telephone calls to lobby in favor of tax breaks for businesses in what are called "Renaissance zones" in the state's small towns and large cities.

▇ A second apparent consequence of the 65th Legislative Assembly is the impact on higher education. Again, the deadline forecloses an exact report of what the Legislature did, but proposed cuts in college and university budgets ranged from about 12 percent to about 30 percent.

As the session wound down late last week, significant issues remained in play, including funding residencies for UND medical students and the future of North Dakota State University's nursing program in Bismarck.

Perhaps the most pressing was funding for Dickinson State University, whose budget could be reduced by as much as 30 percent.

It's important to understand that these cuts are not connected to the emergent Bastiat caucus. Instead, they arise from a loss of confidence in the higher education system among more centrist Republicans, the kind of Main Street eminences who believe that government is OK as long as it's working.

Quite a few of them doubt that North Dakota's higher education system passes this bar.

This is perhaps the most damaging critiques of higher education in the state: that it has been badly managed.

Others are that it doesn't produce "workforce ready graduates," that it undermines the values of western civilization, and that campuses no longer are necessary because knowledge is pervasive, and an Internet connection is all that's needed to become educated.

▇ A third conclusion about this legislative session is that it has come to grips with the behavioral health care crisis in the state. Legislation already passed improves services to people who have what many call "issues" and that we used to call "mental illness."

The current Legislature can't claim credit for all of the progress in this area. Behavioral health care problems came to legislative attention in 2013, when a study was ordered. The 2015 session extended this, and the Legislative Management Committee prepared legislation that would address these problems.

Bills addressing some of these have passed and become law, thanks to a sympathetic governor, Doug Burgum. Burgum has made behavioral health a centerpiece of his effort "to reinvent" state government.

The devil is in the details, of course. In North Dakota, the details are in budgets, and it's not clear that the funding that the Legislature might provide is enough to make a real difference in delivery of services.

What is clear is that behavioral health has emerged as a real issue, involving real people in real communities across the state.

And that's progress.

Before the gavel, without knowledge of the final outcome of the session, it's not possible to evaluate this progress or even if there has been any.

Be of good cheer, nevertheless. The deadline for that reporting is a full week away.

□ □ □

The deadline bedeviled me last week, driving me to a careless error. Kevin Cramer did not end Earl Pomeroy's career in the U.S. House. Rather, Rick Berg defeated Pomeroy in 2010, the so-called wave election.

In 2012, Berg ran for the U.S. Senate and was beaten by Heidi Heitkamp, the incumbent who faces re-election in 2018. Cramer is regarded as a potential candidate against Heitkamp, thus giving her the opportunity of besting two sitting congressmen in elections for the Senate.

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

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