If you read my book When Governance Worked you’ll find that some of what was contained in those musings is relevant to this discussion of the recent legislative session. Over the years some things change but in reality much remains the same as when I served. The changes can usually be associated with the different personalities who are now the political leaders of the state.
I was lucky in that Senate Majority Leader Gary Nelson and I were on the same page most of the time. I could accept that he had a more difficult time keeping his Republican caucus in line. Thus, when we found ourselves facing problems with the different ways the house and senate wanted to deal with an issue I could discuss it openly with Gary. I knew that he and I could agree but that he might have a problem keeping his people together. With that understanding I could be patient waiting for the senate majority to come around or at least we’d find a compromise that I could take back to the house without feeling I sold out the ranch.
Maj. Ldr. Carlson has been around awhile so I suspect he has a fairly good understanding of how far he can go with his caucus. Maj. Ldr. Wardner being new to the job may not have been as comfortable in his role as leader. There is no play book for being a legislative majority leader. A lot of what you do when it comes to developing policy within your caucus is instinctual. As I said in my book Gary was good at keeping a sometimes fractious bunch of Republicans going in the same general direction. I didn’t have the same problems over in the house. Gary was more deliberate and cautious while I tended to want to shake things up. I see those same dynamics in this session but I don’t think Maj. Ldr. Wardner was able to keep the senate caucus moving ahead.
I saw that in a number of issues. Whether it was higher ed or property tax issues the senate gave a lot of push back to a more conservative house. The k-12 and higher ed funding bills were probably the most illustrative of those defining issues.
Things that disappoint me most are how the legislature deals with the executive branch of government. I always was of the belief that the legislature was the people’s branch of government. Even though Gov. Schafer was a Republican and very popular we went our own direction. Some Republicans used to criticize us for that independence but we refused to relinquish our prerogatives just to satisfy political expediency. I think that spirit of independence and initiative has been lost over this last decade.
I see the same thing in congress. Maj. Ldr. Reid bows to the whims of the Obama administration and the bureaucracy that it has installed. The Republican house pushes back on a lot of the issues but can’t win the day. In effect you have King Obama and his minions running the country and the only check is the U.S. House. Witness all of the things coming out of DOJ, the State Dept., the I.R.S. or H.H.S.
In North Dakota the same thing is happening but in a different way. Almost every elective office and majority control belongs to the Republicans. In this case the Governor and executive branch gets its way because no one wants to be seen as rocking the political boat.
Maybe because Gary and I were of the old school of legislators we didn’t care about rocking the boat as much as we did about good public policy. I can’t tell you the number of times someone from the Schafer administration would tell me I was not being a team player. Frankly I wasn’t a team player with the executive branch I was the leader of the North Dakota House and that was my team. As long as I could convince my team to play ball with Gary’s team over in the senate I thought we were doing fine. As I said that offended some but after awhile I think even the governor understood where we were coming from.
Probably the biggest example of this is the property tax issue. Buying down property tax would be a popular thing to propose for most governors of North Dakota. It has been happening for over a decade but has yet to satisfy those who think that is the major issue. Thus instead of real tax reform such as elimination of personal and corporate income tax or a reduction of sales tax we get 100’s of millions in tax shift to satisfy certain constituencies that can’t be satisfied.
If you had taken all of the money spent on property tax and eliminated the other taxes the growth of government would be less of an issue. The people’s branch of government should be protecting the citizens from the rent seekers. Reducing general fund revenues by eliminating taxes would make it easier to say no to the spenders. That is where the policy making branch of government should be headed.
By the way, for those of you who consider yourselves conservatives, did you see any of the Democrat minority leaders advocating for a cut in spending. The narrative I heard from them was a need to spend more. Their philosophy was well described by former Democrat Lieutenant Governor Lloyd Omdahl in his latest column. Give me any Republican legislator who votes for the majority leader rather than Democrats getting control of the purse strings.