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Mike Jacobs: 'Bastiats' test their strength in ND

Mike Jacobs

Your assignment last week was to “hold that thought” about the last-minute maneuverings of North Dakota lawmakers. This turns out to have been better advice than I anticipated. The move against the state auditor was explainable, I thought, but I’d run out of room to speculate about it. The intervening week elevated the issue to the point that it not only helps define the new structure of North Dakota politics but could be the foundation of the coming election cycle, which begins less than a year from now and is already on the minds of potential candidates.

Because whether or not Josh Gallion, the auditor, is a “Bastiat,” the fact remains that the Bastiat Caucus has rallied around him. The final vote on a bill that limited the auditor’s authority pretty well identified members of the caucus; with one exception, the 20 votes against the bill were consistent supporters of this right-leaning rump group in the Legislature.

The Bastiat Caucus has emerged as an important piece of the political fabric in the state, for three reasons. The first is the decline of the Democratic Party in the state and its failure to offer alternatives to the mainstream Republicans who run the place. The second is that mainstream Republicans are divided in a number of ways, although on the whole they are more moderate than the Bastiats. The third is the creative energy in the caucus itself. Whatever one’s reaction to the Bastiats, they’ve made themselves heard not just within the Legislature, but well beyond. The caucus is named after an 18th century French economic thinker, Frederic Bastiat, remembered as the father of “opportunity theory,” which holds that less government means more opportunity.

Ordinarily, you’d expect adherents of such a point of view to champion legislative primacy, but in this case you’d be wrong. The caucus rallied around the auditor when lawmakers tried to check his power to do what are called performance audits. Two of these attracted attention in the last year -- one implicated a former state senator in self-dealing; the other fingered the governor for extravagant travel expenses. Auditor Gallion undertook these audits on his own authority. Under legislation approved in the evening hours of the next-to-last-day of the session, lawmakers demanded to know in advance what Gallion proposed to examine.

Bastiats took this as a breach of the auditor’s independence.

The unexpected move is just the first of several curious developments involving the issue. The targets of the abuses were not unknown. The Wahpeton Daily News had reported a former state senator, now a vice president of the State School of Science, apparently used his position to steer state projects to his wife’s company. The second involved the governor’s use of state aircraft. Auditor Gallion was critical, and delivered a slap on the wrist.

The results of the audits themselves are not the important element politically; rather the importance is the charge that can be made, that the auditor is being punished for looking after the state’s money – essentially for doing his job. Bastiats and their supporters recognized the issue as a gift, and determined to refer the bill limiting the auditor’s authority, and for good measure, they’re aiming at several provisions of the bill funding Gov. Doug Burgum’s signature project, a library honoring Theodore Roosevelt. If their petition drives are successful, voters would decide the fate of the measure on Primary Election Day in June next year.

The Bastiat Caucus leader, Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, closed out the session with an oration that sounded very much like a campaign speech. Not long after, Burgum told the press that he is “leaning in” to a reelection campaign. The two were candidates for governor at the 2016 Republican state convention – along with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who won the endorsement but lost the nomination to Burgum in the primary election.

Then there’s Heidi Heitkamp, who suggested she’d consider becoming UND interim president and accepted an honorary degree a couple of weeks later – favorable publicity that helped obscure a likely move toward a run for the governorship. She’s founded an organization intended to enhance the appeal of Democrats in Great Plains states – funded with money left over from her 2016 campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate.

She lost, but in defeat provided yet another ingredient for the curious concoction that is politics in North Dakota.

Blogger Rob Port added still another curious element to this story. In an unusually passionate post at his Say Anything Blog, he urged legislative leaders to call a special session to undo this wrong toward Auditor Gallion. That’s not too likely, given the involvement of leadership in the move.

In any case, I hope it doesn’t happen, because it would ruin a possibility to weigh the Bastiat Caucus and its political philosophy more closely.

In this regard, it’s worth remembering that the auditor’s office will be up for grabs on the 2020 ballot, presumably with the incumbent auditor himself among contenders.

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