Mike Jacobs: Dealmaking among leaders marked North Dakota session's close

In the end, the North Dakota legislative session came down to what the leaders wanted. Wrangling between them prolonged the session beyond what either had predicted.

Mike Jacobs speaks at Friday's ceremony after being inducted into the North Dakota Newspaper Association's Hall of Fame. Submitted Photo.

In the end, the North Dakota legislative session came down to what the leaders wanted. Wrangling between them prolonged the session beyond what either had predicted.

We're talking the Republican leadership here. Democrats in the Legislature have leadership, amiable, well-meaning and well-informed members, but not influential leaders overall. There are just too few Democrats to make any consequential difference.

Power resides with Republicans in the one-party state that North Dakota has become. The Republican leaders are both men (unlike Democrats, who made Sen. Joan Heckaman of New Rockford the first female caucus leader in the state's history).

These Republican leaders are quite different in their approaches. Neither will embrace these characterizations, I'm sure. But Al Carlson, the House leader, appears to be a blood relative of Machiavelli-the famously confrontational (and manipulative) Italian who is regarded as the father of political science-while Rich Wardner, the Senate leader, rather resembles Lyndon Johnson (equally manipulative), who famously said, "Come. Let us reason together."

The individual styles of these leaders were on display throughout the session, and as the session entered endgame, these attributes were brought to bear on their individual interests.


From this, the final compromise emerged.

As has been widely reported, this involved changes in the state Public Employee Retirement System, dealing both with how the system is governed and what benefits it offers. Carlson has promoted greater legislative oversight and championed a program in which the state would assume the risk that coverage would exceed premiums paid, and this in exchange for cost savings in the plan.

The shorthand description of this is "self-insurance." It's fairly common in the business world, less so in government.

This may seem an esoteric undertaking, but Carlson has devoted time and energy to the issue. He derailed the 2015 session at the last minute by refusing to accept the Senate's desire to leave well enough alone as far as employee benefits were concerned. That resulted in a recessed session, one in which legislators used what remained in their constitutional limit. Carlson was made to accept the Senate's position.

He took revenge for this in various ways during the 2017 session, including the closing compromise, which pulled Dickinson State University back from the brink.

Senate Leader Wardner is from Dickinson.

DSU faced an existential threat this session. The reasons are tied to a scheme that enrolled Chinese students and granted them degrees without requiring anything other than money from them. This is best described as a "diploma mill."

And that was only part of DSU's crisis. Its alumni foundation collected funds, built facilities and didn't pay for them. The university faced a lawsuit seeking to recover investments.


Wardner was in a tight spot-as Carlson clearly recognized. He extracted an agreement to cancel the state's existing insurance contract, even at the risk of a lawsuit, in return for funding for Dickinson State.

At a caucus of Senate Republicans, Wardner said he was "frosted" that a policy question - self-insurance - had been attached to a budget question-DSU's future.

But he had little choice. He accepted the deal.

Wardner enjoys almost complete loyalty from Senate Republicans. He is, after all, an inclusive kind of leader.

This is not the case in the House, where the Republican caucus is so fractious that I was able to document at last 17 flavors of Republicans - but more about that next week.

In the meantime, how should we judge these leaders?

On this page on Sunday, columnist Rob Port argued that both of the leaders should be "benched" because their individual interests delayed the end of the session. He quoted an unnamed legislator who asserted "It's embarrassing." His own conclusion was "Legislative Republicans need better leaders."



But it seems to me that both of these men brought their individual points of view and their individual talents to bear on the issues that arose. True enough, Carlson was combative, as Machiavelli would have been. Examples abound: assaults on wind energy, criticism of Gov. Doug Burgum's wardrobe, an unexpected bill to legalize state-owned casinos.

Wardner was conciliatory. Late Wednesday, he summoned Republican Senate members to his office in groups of 10 or a dozen. They emerged united in support of him and the college in his home town.

Should these leaders be sent to the back benches, as Port suggested?

Voters in their districts-Wardner's in Dickinson and Carlson's in Fargo-will decide if these members should be re-elected in 2018. And if they are, legislators will decide if their leadership roles should continue.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at .

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