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Mike Jacobs: Face-off approaches in North Dakota Legislature

Little is certain in any representative assembly, except that there will be differences of opinion, and that these can escalate to disagreement, tension, conflict and confrontation.

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Little is certain in any representative assembly, except that there will be differences of opinion, and that these can escalate to disagreement, tension, conflict and confrontation.

At each of these stages, news is made.

The North Dakota Legislature, now entering its endgame, offers an excellent setting in which to observe this process. It's a kind of petri dish of politics.

At least four fault lines exist in every assembly. The most common is between parties, but tension can develop within a single party, too. Tension between the assembly's parts can arise, whether that is between committees or between houses. Finally, tensions between the legislative and executive branches of the government are inherent in the process.

In this session, the chance for real conflict is between the houses. This was the case in 2015, as well, so bicameral squabbling seems usual to North Dakotans. It hasn't been the norm, however. The 2015 and 2017 sessions have been anomalies.

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There are several reasons for this to be so in the current session. First, there is no chance of significant conflict between the political parties. It's not that Democrats haven't tried to create some; it's that the Republican majority is just too large.

In other sessions, coalitions between one party and elements of another have developed. An historic example is the coal severance tax debate in 1977, when enough Republicans defected to prolong the session and raise the tax higher than the party leadership wanted.

When the results of the 2016 election became clear, there was speculation that Democrats and moderate Republicans might determine the outcome of some issues, at least. This has happened, but to a very limited extent.

Two examples involve schools. The Senate rejected "school choice" by defeating a House-passed bill that would have allowed tax breaks or "vouchers" to parents whose children don't attend public schools. Senators also turned down a House bill that would have allowed guns in some schools.

Nearly a third of legislators are new this session, but no "freshman caucus" has developed.

A caucus of conservatives has flourished, meeting weekly to discuss issues. The range of opinion in the caucus is pretty broad, however, and its members don't always vote alike-and even if they did, there are not quite enough of them to defeat the party leadership.

Neither has tension between the legislative and executive branches of government been very much in evidence. Partly this is because Gov. Doug Burgum is new to the governor's office-and to government in general. What's more, an external issue, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, dominated the first months of his term.

Nevertheless, there have been a couple of instances of conflict. One involves a program that matches private donations to public colleges and universities. Burgum suggested capping it at $10 million; the House eliminated it entirely.

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Burgum also pled gubernatorial prerogative by vetoing a bill that would have limited bonuses paid to his staff. The Legislature complied, sustaining the veto.

Any veto is a kind of confrontation, of course, but this one was quickly dispatched. The so-called Challenge Grants remain contentious, and they could become an issue again, but between the House and the Senate.

Of course, that's where the action is this session.

Fortunately for news junkies, there is plenty of tension between the two houses, and this will become more evident as the session moves toward adjournment.

The policies at issue are not necessarily those that rivet public attention. One is the structure of the board that governs employee pensions. Another is health insurance for state employees.

A plan to assume each county's share of social service costs, and thus cut property taxes, is another potential sticking point.

Then there are budget bills. Work isn't finished on several of the big budgets, higher education, human services, commerce and the Office of Management and Budget among them. The last sometimes becomes a catch-all for funding that was stripped out of other bills. For that reason, it is often the last budget passed.

But it was the pension board that derailed the 2015 session. Senators refused to accept the changes approved by the House, and when negotiations broke down, senators adjourned. A special session was called that used up the few days lawmakers had saved from their constitutional allotment of 80 days.

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That was an extreme tactic, and bitterness about it hasn't evaporated. That's another reason to expect conflict between the chambers.

It is true that each session of the Legislature proceeds like a hockey game, with action on bills taking up two periods and the business of reaching agreement through conference committees using a third.

The analogy with hockey isn't exact, of course. In hockey, face-offs occur at the beginning of play. In the Legislature, they occur at the end.

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

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