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Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald

Mike Jacobs: North Dakota's reigning party splits again

When it rains, it pours, they say.

But they are often wrong. Sometimes it doesn't rain at all. Such was the case last week. Luckily, history came to the rescue. No such resort is necessary this week. This week, the political muses have been especially generous.

First let us note the little kerfuffle that arose when the Legislative Management Committee met in Bismarck. Democrats were appointed to chair some of the sub-committees that will study issues ahead of the 2017 Legislature.

What? You wonder! Democrats chairing committees?

Not very many, actually. Democrats will chair three of the 26 committees. That's about one-eighth. The figure is slightly disproportionate to numbers of Democrats in the Legislature, which is about one-seventh.

This was the work of Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who chairs the Management Committee and recommends the chairmanships. Some Republicans objected, led by Rep. Al Carlson of Fargo, the party's leader in the House of Representatives.

Chairmanships of interim committees should reflect the makeup of the Legislature, Carlson argued. Here's his statement, quoted by John Hageman of Forum News Service: "I don't know of any other state in this union where the minority party with that kind of numbers would be chairing committees when in reality they will never, at least in the near future, chair any committee during the legislative session."

Carlson might be right. Few other state legislatures have so lopsided a Republican majority as North Dakota.

But Holmberg had common practice and state history on his side. Citing information from the National Council of State Legislatures, Holmberg showed that splitting the chairmanships between parties is standard practice in most states, and it is the historical norm in North Dakota, as well.

The unspoken issue, perhaps, is that partisanship does not always follow competence. Rep. Kathy Hogan of Fargo is widely — perhaps nearly unanimously — regarded as the expert on human services in the Legislature. She's a Democrat, and in a partisan world, her expertise would be overlooked.

The Legislative Management Committee is important because it brings attention to pending issues. In the last interim — between the sessions of 2015 and 2017 — its committees drilled deep into the management of the higher education system and delivery of human services. The first helps explain legislative hostility to the state's colleges during the session, and the second ungirds the efforts at reform made in behavioral health issues.

As it happens, the committee has another important — and controversial — task ahead of it. On Wednesday, members will consider what response to make to Gov. Doug Burgum's vetoes of parts of the grand compromise that brought the 2017 session to an end.

They were unconstitutional, a legislative attorney has declared. Perhaps they should be challenged in the courts. This isn't likely to be a partisan issue, but it could re-open the divide between Senate and House Republicans. The governor overruled much of what the House, under Carlson's leadership, had demanded, but approved much of what the Senate had added to the mix.

In other issues

Higher education leapt back onto front pages last week. Chancellor Mark Hagerott proclaimed himself a "shameless advocate" of the university system in a headline on the Herald's front page.

During the 2017 legislative session, I sat through hearings on college budgets, and I didn't hear much advocacy from members of the Board of Higher Education or the system office. Board President Kathy Neset said she had no objections to the budget legislators had prepared.

Legislators cut almost $272 million from the system budget, about 20 percent. To date — six weeks after legislative adjournment—the system office hasn't provided any detail about the impact of these cuts, not a total of jobs lost, programs cut, research not funded.

On the national scene, Kevin Cramer, North Dakota's only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, wondered aloud whether the job is worth the risk. This came in the wake of an attack on Congressional Republicans who were preparing for a charity baseball game. Earlier — and much less menacingly — Cramer himself had been challenged by a belligerent constituent at a town hall type meeting in Mandan.

Of course, Cramer's musing could have an impact on the field for the 2018 election in North Dakota. There's little doubt that Cramer's name will be there, though. He put aside his own doubts by saying that, of course, it's worth it to run and to serve.

Last week's shooting raised again the question of political climate. Do rhetorical choices incite violence? This is an unprovable hypothesis, I suppose, but the risk isn't worth taking. From now, I am purging the word "resistance" from my political vocabulary. Opposition suggests solutions within the political system. Resistance has quite a different connotation.