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The new N.D.? A tight fist and an open heart

Well, it was a weird week at the capitol. The weather outside was tough. The atmosphere inside wasn't especially warm and welcoming. Yet there was a strong sense of anticipation.

For the sake of history, let's deal with the weirdness up front. We'll return to consider the anticipation.

Brent Sanford, the new lieutenant governor, took the oath of office in the Senate chamber. All of the others were sworn in the House chamber, just ahead of the governor's state-of-the-state-address. Nor did Sanford preside at the special session to hear the speech.

These moves, all unprecedented at least in recent times, were assertions of authority by the House leadership, which basically dismissed the lieutenant governor as an official of the Senate, where he presides by constitutional authority.

"It's my house," Republican Leader Al Carlson reportedly said.

The weather kept the governor's band, from Williston High School, away. The governor's chorus, from Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, couldn't make it either.

Gov. Doug Burgum set a modern-day record for pushing the deadline. Ordinarily, the text of a governor's speech is available several hours ahead of delivery. This gives reporters a sense of when to turn on the cameras. Burgum's text was distributed just before noon, barely an hour before it was delivered.

It was a short speech, 34 minutes, nearly a quarter of an hour shorter than last session's speech by then Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Gov. Burgum cried, also unprecedented.

His was the only speech. Legislative leaders decided not to invite a representative from the state's native communities, a break from tradition of at least three decades. The chief justice didn't speak either.

Legislative leaders met with representatives of each of the tribes, one tribe at a time. This was possible because there were no floor sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. Instead, lawmakers went to committee meetings, another change in routine.

The inaugural ball resembled a campaign rally more than a gala. There was dancing, but it started late. The program ate up the better part of two hours.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wasn't there, a notable absence. I should have asked, but I didn't find out whether he was not invited or decided not to come. In either case, the impression is the same. Somebody's not feeling good about the election. Burgum whipped the attorney general in the Republican primary.

Perhaps because there were no floor deadlines to meet, some legislative committee got stuck. The House Education Committee spent most of a morning considering whether the state or school districts should decide the merits of online education programs. The Senate Agriculture Committee worked through a long list of archaic and redundant language. In their Judiciary Committee senators argued about whether or not language in the state code should be updated to recognize the reality of gay marriage.

That's just the ones I heard about.

Democrats were responsible for lengthening some hearings; they're leery about what Republicans might be trying to take out of the code. But it was Republicans insisting on leaving the code alone as it pertains to gay marriage.

Then there was the implicit repudiation of the previous administration. This wasn't mean spirited, exactly, but it was remarkable nonetheless, since it was a Republican administration and the Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. The total number of Democrats is 22 out of 141; in fact, there will be a rump Republican caucus that outnumbers Democrats. State Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck expects at least 25 Republicans to join the Bastiat Caucus, which he formed and named for a French libertarian thinker of the 19th century.

In his speech, Burgum called for re-inventing government. His announcement that he wouldn't introduce zero-based budgeting this session brought relief; most of the rest of his speech was lauded as inspirational but not very informative. Burgum later said some specific initiatives would be presented by the end of January.

Burgum used much of his state-of-the-state speech trying to reset relations between native communities and the state. "We must work with resolve to shape a new future," he said.

His tears came when he told the story of a young man he called Matt — a story of "his broken home, lost childhood, homelessness, loneliness, despair and addiction."

The governor vowed, "We need to start treating addiction like the chronic disease that it is."

These are sentiments you don't always hear from Republicans.

So there was a sense of inspiration and anticipation about the speech.

Legislative leaders brought anticipation of a different kind. Late in the week, they dramatically lowered the revenue projections on which they'll build the state budget. It was another way of turning away from the previous administration — and facing the future with a tight fist and an open heart.