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Mike Jacobs: 2017 leaves issues pending

Every year that passes leaves issues behind, and 2017 left many of them. The recitation that follows is hardly complete. There is not space enough in one newspaper column to list them all.

Among them is reinventing government. Gov. Doug Burgum made reinvention a big part of his campaign, and he's made some progress in his first year in office. The biggest challenges may lie ahead, and the biggest of them all is higher education.

North Dakota isn't alone here; nationally, higher education is pressed in many ways, some political, some economic, but many driven by technological change. Information is delivered differently, ideas are developed differently, and as the governor likes to say, knowledge transfer has changed.

In some ways North Dakota's system does seem uniquely challenged. The budget for colleges and universities was cut sharply in the last legislative session. Falling tax revenues due to a contracting economy drove part of this, but it's important to remember that earlier decisions in tax and funding policy left higher education uniquely vulnerable.

Funding is not the only challenge facing higher education in North Dakota. A vigorous debate about governing the colleges and universities has arisen, with both a legislative committee and a gubernatorial task force examining the issue. At the same time, the system faces a leadership crisis involving the chancellor and the Board of Higher Education. Beyond all this is the continuing discussion of what education should aim to accomplish. What is the proper role of technical training? Of the liberal arts? Of character building? Of creative activity?

This tangle of issues makes other pending items seem easier. The F-M Diversion, for example, only requires agreement between state governments in North Dakota and Minnesota. No easy task that, though Burgum and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton have a commission working on areas of disagreement. Progress is reported; no conclusions have been reached.

The higher education task force and the cross-boundary commission is an example of Burgum's approach to public policy. He's used it in other ways, including substance abuse and other social issues, which he emphasized in his inaugural speech a year ago this week. The tactic was evident early in his term, in his handling of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. This involved extensive consultation with American Indian communities. The same approach has been applied in another troublesome area, taxation on reservations. This last was partly a legislative initiative.

Burgum's Main Street Initiative doesn't seem to have advanced quite as rapidly, despite a great deal of publicity about it. During the session, Burgum suggested he'd have specific ideas to present when lawmakers reconvene in a year's time. Meanwhile, he's kicked off a campaign to promote the idea. He'll bring that to Grand Forks later this month, when he speaks to the annual Chamber dinner.

The proposed Davis Refinery hasn't lent itself to this sort of approach. Rather, the builders have tried to slip past state regulation. The rationale is that the refinery doesn't meet the minimum capacity set out in state law. The company has been quite clear that it intends further development at the site, which is within a few miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Public Service Commission has asserted its authority, but it can't force the issue.

The issues named so far don't fit a given timetable, but the pending election campaign does. Endorsing conventions are roughly three months away, suggesting that the field of candidates will be set soon. Republicans are eager to unseat U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who won a narrow victory in 2012. An intricate two-step has been underway among ambitious Republicans. Who might be in the race, and won't be until Congressman Kevin Cramer makes up his mind. Late in the year, he tipped his hand, saying that President Trump wants him in the Senate. Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton has restarted his advertising campaign, which emphasizes his enthusiasm for President Trump's agenda. Two potential candidates, both women, have demurred. Cramer's seat in the House will be on the ballot, whether he seeks re-election or undertakes the riskier Senate campaign.

These races are significant, but the real action may be in legislative elections. In 2016, conservatives quietly took over Republican district conventions and increased their strength in the 2017 session. A similar showing in 2018 could put them in striking distance of a majority in the state House of Representatives, a development that would have implications for every politician and every public issue in the state.

Wrong again: All of the members of the governor's task force on higher education have homes in North Dakota. Last week's column said that one lived outside the state.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. His column is published each Tuesday in the Herald. He can be reached at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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