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Mike Jacobs: Heavy lifting expected in session

Legislators of both parties face some heavy lifting in the upcoming session, Democrats because they are so few and Republicans because they are so many and all of them because the issues are so weighty, ranging from governing higher education to ...

Legislators of both parties face some heavy lifting in the upcoming session, Democrats because they are so few and Republicans because they are so many and all of them because the issues are so weighty, ranging from governing higher education to taxing energy and delivering human services.

Democrats made small gains and will hold 15 of 94 seats in the House and 10 of 47 in the Senate. Republicans lost three seats in House and one in Senate. The biggest loss was their leader, Al Carlson, who ran fourth of four candidates in his south Fargo district.

Last week, Republicans elected Chet Pollert to be their leader. Pollert is a member of long tenure and low profile. Both probably helped him win.

First elected in 1998, Pollert has served through 10 sessions, making him one of the senior House members. For the most part, he's worked hard, kept quiet and gained power as a member of the Appropriations Committee, where he handled budgets for human service agencies.

It may be that the House Republican leader is the most powerful elected official in the state, responsible for committee assignments and floor agendas, duties technically shared with the speaker of the House, which in North Dakota's system is a largely symbolic role.

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The majority leader is also the nexus of negotiations between the other power players, the governor and the state Senate. Carlson especially relished that role, and used his position effectively throughout his tenure, keeping members in line, challenging the governor's style and ambition and bullying the Senate to support House positions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Through all of that, Carlson held the Republican caucus together, not a small accomplishment, since Republicans come in a variety of flavors in regard to ideology, geography, personality and ambition.

Pollert will be the first House majority leader in 13 sessions without a Fargo address, and the first in 18 sessions who didn't come from one of the state's three largest cities. His home is in Carrington; his business, a grain and feed dealership, is in New Rockford. Coincidentally, this is the hometown of the Democratic leader in the Senate, Joan Heckaman. Both Heckaman and Pollert won re-election earlier this month, though from different legislative districts.

Democrats in the House will elect a leader at the organizational session the first week in December. Corey Mock held the job last session; he's challenged by Josh Boschee. Both were holdover members, Mock from a Grand Forks district and Boschee from a district in Fargo. Boschee has ambitions beyond the House; in November he lost a race for secretary of state.

Rich Wardner of Dickinson will continue as the Republican leader in the Senate. This will be his fourth session in the job.

So much for the lifters. Now for the lifting.

For Democrats, the challenge will be to have any impact at all. With only a fifth of seats in the assembly, that will be difficult.

The challenge for Republicans might appear less daunting, but that conclusion overlooks the differences within the party, which includes conservatives who want to make government as small as possible to centrists who see government as a tool that can be used to build economies and communities as well as individual success.

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Beyond these ideological differences there are regional ones, and these have grown wider as the state's economy has diversified, resulting in more population, more challenges and more clout in the western counties than has ever been the case before.

Then there are local constituencies for each of the state institutions, colleges, universities, state fairs, ag experiment stations, highway shops, irrigation projects, energy installations and so on.

Plus there are political personalities. The most prominent of these is Gov. Doug Burgum, a Fargoan, a businessman and an otherwise thinker who challenged the Republican establishment and got the job. Burgum has never been a legislator, and he played a limited role in the last session.

That's clearly not his intention this go-round.

Last week his task force on higher education recommended replacing the Board of Higher Education, a step that will requires legislative approval and a statewide vote. At Burgum's direction, state agencies have been preparing budgets that include potential cuts. The budget will be presented at the legislative pre-session in early December. Other Burgum initiatives are pending, as well.

Energy issues loom. In November, the Public Service Commission held the state's first ever hearing on an application for a large-scale solar energy installation, an indication that the state's energy sector continues to diversify, raising aggravating issues of equity in taxation and regulation.

Two ballot measures will get attention, one that passed and one that didn't. Efforts to change marijuana are building, despite defeat of Measure 3, which would have legalized recreational use. Greater pressure will be directed at blunting the impact of Measure 1, which passed, entrenching an ethics commission in the state constitution. Changes will require super majorities of lawmakers and another statewide vote.

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

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