The referral efforts have failed. This is good news for the governor but it could be bad news for the government.

For Gov. Doug Burgum, the failure of the petition drives to force a vote on legislation removes a couple of potentially difficult campaign issues. Of the three measures targeted by the failed petitions, funding for the Roosevelt library was perhaps the most consequential for Burgum, but also the most easily defended. A recent poll suggested support for the library is neither as broad nor as deep as Burgum imagined, but the idea is appealing.

With the other two, not so much.

One of them continues the erosion of the state’s sunshine laws, which had been among the strongest in the nation. This is bad news for citizens who value transparency in government That would include journalists, of course. It’s also bad news for the new ethics commission, which will depend on open records.

The third of the referrals addressed the most troubling of all government issues, separation of powers. Its failure leaves confusion, which is always bad news for government.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

The Legislature required the state auditor to get permission for certain types of audits. The governor signed the bill, which makes it law. The attorney general advised that the law likely would be found unconstitutional in the courts. The auditor said he’d go ahead with the audits, which means he’ll be breaking the law.

Voters might have cleared up the mess if the referral effort had been successful.

The news is worst for the emerging conservative caucus in the Legislature, which opposed these bills and encouraged the referrals – but without putting any of its existing organization behind the effort. Gathering signatures was left to a group of marginal activists, some of whom have been involved in previous efforts that were a little on the wacky side.

A referral election would have made a good civics lesson for casual voters. The failure suggests that encouragement is not enough; active participation is needed to make the kind of changes conservative activists have wanted. That requires a visible leader and a viable organization. Neither emerged in the referral effort, which means that Burgum is likely safe from a challenge from that wing of his Republican Party.

The next bit of news came directly from the governor’s office. Burgum has appointed a chief operating officer. She is Tammy Miller, chief executive officer of Border States Electric. A profile in Forum Company newspapers on Sunday emphasized her small-town roots and her considerable business experience. Reporter Robin Huebner raised a question: Could Miller make the transition to government work? It’s a good question.

One wag wondered what a chief operating officer would do, and suggested the title is a good job description for the governor himself. In Burgum’s view, the governor is the dreamer and decider, the chief executive officer, in other words. The chief operating officer is the doer and the delegator.

Miller won’t take up the duties for another 10 months, which raises another question: If the job can wait, is it really necessary? The likely explanation is that the job is more a lobbying job than an administrative one. Burgum has run into trouble in both legislative sessions of his first term; he faces re-election in 2020 and another session in 2021. It may also be a training ground for Miller, who briefly flirted with a campaign for the UI.S. Senate. Until she’s on the job, it’s too soon to add her name of contenders to be the state’s first female governor.

The appointment brings a second successful Fargo business executive into the governor’s office. The other, of course, is Burgum himself.

The move also pushes leaders of the Valley Prosperity Partnership into more influential roles. William Marcil Sr., then president of Forum Communications Company, provided funds to jumpstart the development think tank. Miller was one of the group’s co-chairs. The other co-chair is Steve Burian, who built AE2S, a Grand Forks-based engineering firm. Burian’s new position of influence is membership on the committee searching for a new president of UND. He was among the most vocal members at the group’s inaugural meeting.



Clarification

Last week’s column exaggerated the amount paid to a Washington, D.C., firm hired to help in the last presidential search. Billie Jo Lorius, communications director for the N.D. University System, said the sum was about $80,000. The number used last week included the cost to bring candidates to campus. The Herald’s Sydney Mook dug a bit deeper into the firm’s history with the North Dakota University System. Her piece in Sunday’s Herald showed payments of more than $431,000 for seven searches since 2012, including the one that brought Chancellor Mark Hagerott to the system office in 2014.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.