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Mike Jacobs: N.D. politics: Unique, yet uncertain

As North Dakota's 66th Legislature gets organized this week, Democrats occupy only 15 of the 94 seats in the House and 10 of the 47 seats in the Senate. Not a single Democrat holds a statewide elective office.

No similar situation in North Dakota comes to mind.

Certainly there have been lopsided partisan majorities; one session, Democratic senators were photographed crammed into a phone booth. There may have been times when members of one party, Republicans, held every elective statewide office, but not since 1940. There have been factional divisions in the majority caucus, and several times factions have organized within the Republican majority, frustrating political programs and in one case destroying a political career. There have been disagreements between Republican majorities in each chamber, notably in the last two sessions. True, there have inexperienced governors with big ideas, and some who had policy agendas as aggressive as this one does.

But all of these circumstances have never occurred at the same time, until now.

Each of these circumstances is historically interesting, but none suggests quite what might befall the state's current one-party government, because all of anomalies have come together at the same time, and that's never happened before.

With Democrats out of the way, Republicans are free to fight among themselves. They will, and this could make the upcoming session one of the most contentious in the state's history. It could also be one of the most consequential, both for politics and public policy.

We'll get a hint of what's to come on Wednesday, when Gov. Doug Burgum presents the executive budget. This is only advisory, as Ray Holmberg made clear in an interview with John Hageman of Forum News Service.

"The Legislature at the end of the day will do what the Legislature feel is appropriate, because we set the final budget," Holmberg said. He's an authority on the subject, because he chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

No governor expects a budget to survive intact and legislative reactions to a budget don't necessarily suggest challenges to the governor's program. The bigger threat is to Burgum's plans to "reinvent" state government. Much of the focus will be on higher education; Burgum appointed a task force that has recommended replacing the current governing board. This may seem arcane and even irrelevant to voters, but it is of intense interest to lawmakers, who must approve a constitutional amendment making changes. Voters will make the final decision.

The specifics of the proposal aren't yet known, except that one board will become three, one for each of the research universities and one for the nine other institutions. Burgum and his task force have launched a campaign in favor of the reorganization, but it's been met with skepticism and even some ridicule.

Higher education is just one element of the governor's agenda. He's already suggested spending $30 million for technology that would track drone traffic in the state, clearing the way for commercial development — perhaps. Other initiatives include better addiction services, a pressing need that lawmakers have been reluctant to fund, and revitalized downtown districts.

So far, this "Main Street Initiative" has been largely cheerleading. It's unclear whether any specific state policies will come of it. Both initiatives are at odds with efforts to "harvest dollars" by consolidating social service offices and closing rural highway shops.

A couple of other incendiary issues are out there, one pretty clear cut and the other remarkably complex. Legalization of marijuana isn't a complicated issue, though the nuances of legislation could be tricky. Wind energy is a complicated issue, freighted with questions about landowner rights, environmental impacts, landscapes, jobs, taxation, and competition with other energy sources. These are policy issues — each of them important enough to generate controversy and challenge party loyalty.

This brings us to the most intriguing recent development in North Dakota politics, the growth of a small-government alternative to more tradition Main Street Republicanism. This is the so-called "Bastiat Caucus," North Dakota's version of the congressional Freedom Caucus. The caucus, named for a French economic thinker, has grown, in part by replacing more traditional Republicans. It's not inconceivable that North Dakota could become the first state with a libertarian majority in its legislature.

That's only one potential far-reaching consequence of the upcoming session. We could have a reorganized higher education system, a green light for wind power, a significant increase in drone traffic, legal marijuana and a new political alignment.

These would be consequential developments, for sure, and not just in terms of policy. Ideology and ambition are also on the line. Legislators, state office-holders and especially Gov. Burgum will be judged on the outcome of this session.

It's early to speculate, of course, but here's another rule in politics: Consequences for one could mean opportunity for another.

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

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