What’s a Democrat to do?
Just when the North Dakota Republican Party appears more vulnerable than it has been in almost 25 years, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party has retrenched into a hole so deep that it’s unlikely Democrats here will be able to climb out of it in time to compete in an election about 280 days hence.
The Democrats have no announced candidates for any statewide office. They had a candidate for governor, but now Sarah Vogel is out, so there’s no apparent experienced, qualified Democrat to challenge the leadership of a party that has been so fiscally irresponsible that we’re looking at a $2 billion budget hole over the next 3 years. We’re not bankrupt, to be sure. In fact, we are rich. We’ve got money stashed in every corner of state government that creative minds could think of. Figuring out how to get at it, to cover our freewheeling spending spree, is the problem.
It’s been just about a year now since Jack Dalrymple, Al Carlson and Rich Wardner loaded up a plane with a billion dollars in “surge funds” and took off on a wild flight across western North Dakota, dumping money out the window as they passed over every hamlet and village west of Highway 83. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Pretty near every county needs a new jail to house the bad guys the unregulated oil boom has brought to our state. Pretty near every paved highway needs to be fixed because of the incredible truck traffic that’s been pounding them for the last few years. Schools that were once consolidated between neighboring towns are now finding the need to “unconsolidate” and reopen. Streets. Community Centers. Hospitals. Policemen. Homeless Shelters. Day Care Centers. The list goes on and on.
I mentioned the $2 billion budget hole. I know, the headlines are saying we’ve got a one billion dollar shortfall this biennium, and the governor is cutting 4 per cent out of the state’s budget, and then replacing the rest of that shortfall with “rainy day funds.” In the end, we’ll be spending only about a quarter of a billion dollars less than the 2015 Legislature budgeted. We’ll find the other $750 million in the reserve funds.
Problem is, in just a few months, state agencies will begin putting together their budgets for the 2017-2019 biennium, and unless oil prices jump back up to where they were a year or so ago, we’ve got another billion dollar shortfall next biennium. It seems unlikely that our budget office would project revenue for that biennium any higher than it is for this biennium—that would be pretty risky business—so now we’re looking at a BIG cut–20 per cent or so–from the state’s current budget, for the next biennium.
No wonder the Democrats don’t have a candidate for governor. They’re smarter than we think. Who’d want that job?
The fact is this current Republican Party of ours, this party which claims to be fiscally conservative, is anything but. I listened to former Governor, now University President, Ed Schafer on the radio the other day. He said, and I quote, “It’s easy to spend money when we have it . . . We’ve spent too much money over the years because we didn’t keep in mind the fact that this (oil boom) wasn’t gonna happen forever, and now we’re in a situation where now we’ve got a billion dollar shortfall to deal with in state government.”
Ed’s right. The state’s general fund budget has jumped from $2.5 billion in 2007-2009 to $6 billion just 8 years later. Way more than double. In terms of total state spending, that figure has climbed from just over $6 billion to more than $14 billion in the last 8 years, again way more than double.
The architect of that spending is Al Carlson, the House Majority Leader, but it helps to have a couple weak sisters like Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and Governor Jack Dalrymple sitting on the bench cheering you on. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it’s all on the Republicans.
So, now Dalrymple is cutting government 4 per cent, emptying our reserve funds to the tune of three quarters of a billion dollars, and getting out of Dodge. Which leaves the fellow who’s been his alter ego the last few years, Wayne Stenehjem, as the odds-on favorite to be our next governor and deal with the problem. Now that’s a thought to inspire confidence in our future. Put a lawyer in charge. Maybe he’ll do what lawyers do—sue somebody, win a big settlement, and plug the budget hole that way. Yeah, right.
See, it’s Jack and Wayne and their buddy Douglas Goehring, the Agriculture Commissioner, who share much of the blame for the fiscal mess we’re in. As the Industrial Commission, they let the oil boys go nuts the last half-dozen years, creating the boom economy which Carlson relied on to spend all that money, not counting on the Bust, with a Capital B, we’re experiencing now—and for the foreseeable future.
When it comes to regulating the oil and gas industry, the Legislature has very little to say. The constitution and laws written over the years give almost complete authority over the oil boys to the Industrial Commission. The Legislature’s only role is to set the level of taxation. That tax remains at about 10 per cent, thanks to an initiated measure 35 years ago headed up by Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad. It was 11 ½ for many years, but the Republican Legislature lowered it to 10 last session.
So, as I wrote here about 5 months ago, Stenehjem is likely to be the Governor at this time next year. The only flaw in the plan is the entrance of Fargo businessman Doug Burgum into the race. Burgum’s running hard, but most of my Republican friends think it’s a lost cause. One went so far as to say Burgum can’t even beat Stenehjem in a primary election in his hometown of Fargo, much less in a statewide race.
But there are some Burgum loyalists in the Republican “establishment” who say different. Some are unhappy with the big spending by the Dalrymple/Stenehjem administration. And remember, until last fall there was another challenger to Stenehjem who had a lot of party support—Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley. Wrigley supporters generally didn’t like Stenehjem and were crushed when a personal scandal forced him from the race, and some of them have drifted to Burgum.
Anecdote: Burgum’s advisers have told him to make a play for as many delegates at the Republican state convention as possible, to give him a base as he heads for the primary. Burgum has had volunteers on the phone calling his friends urging them to attend their district convention and become a delegate to the state convention. Because of some association over the years, I ended up in Burgum’s rolodex. I got a call from a volunteer asking me to go to my Republican convention and become a Burgum delegate. I felt really bad when I had to tell her they wouldn’t let me do that because I am a Democrat. But that call told me Doug is doing the right stuff.
Personally, I agree with Doug’s own assessment that he can’t win at the convention, and I think his chances of winning a primary against Stenehjem are pretty slim, but I’m not dumb enough to ever bet against Doug Burgum. If the Democrats fail to field a candidate, or field a weak candidate, I think Doug would be better off skipping the primary and running as an independent in the fall. If he chooses to run in the Republican Primary, I’d probably cross over into the Republican column and vote for him. I did that once before, when my friend Kevin Cramer was running for Congress. I went over to the Republican column and found his name, but my hand was shaking so bad over on that side of the ballot I could hardly hold the pencil. Did it, though. Kevin has since stretched my patience. Not sure I could do THAT again. But that year, like this year, I thought it was pretty likely a Republican was going to win in the Fall, and so I guessed if we’re going to elect a Republican, I might as well help pick the lesser of two–ah, well, you know. This year, I’m pretty sure I’d rather have Doug Burgum figuring out how to get us out of this financial mess we’re in than Attorney Stenehjem. And I think he’d have a whole lot less loyalty to Big Oil, which already has pretty close to $50,000 into Wayne Stenehjem’s campaign as of the end of the year.
Doug Burgum is in the race, I think, for all the right reasons. I think he doesn’t like the way things are going in the state right now, and, and he’s truly concerned about our future, and he thinks his experience might be valuable right now. He’s also aware, I’m pretty sure, that North Dakotans don’t much like to elect lawyers as their governors, as I wrote a while back. I don’t have anything against lawyers–heck, some of my best friends are lawyers–but there’s something about a law degree that doesn’t seem to work very well in the top executive office in the state, and North Dakotans over the years have sensed that. Maybe that’s why Sarah Vogel opted out. Maybe Doug Burgum saw that as an opportunity.
Here’s another thing that troubles me about Stenehjem. During the 2015 Legislative Session, Republicans passed a bill, called the “Heidi Bill,” which said that a governor cannot appoint a U.S. Senator if a vacancy occurs. There has to be an election. That was to prevent the possibility of popular Democratic U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp getting elected governor and then appointing her own replacement to the Senate seat she was vacating. With Stenehjem in mind, Democrats argued that the law should apply to other offices as well as the Senate. Like Attorney General. To no avail.
We know that since his quick retrenchment on his “Special Places” fiasco a couple years ago that Stenehjem’s in the pocket of the oil industry. If he becomes governor, he gets to appoint his successor as Attorney General. That essentially gives him two votes on the three-person Industrial Commission. His own, and the person he appointed. Not that it matters much right now—Douglas Goehring, the third member of the Industrial Commission, is just as beholden to Big Oil as is Stenehjem. But if Goehring should retire or lose to a Democrat in 2018, that extra vote could make a big difference. Like, in reducing fines by 90 percent when an oil company despoils the countryside with millions of gallons of oil and salt water.
I feel kind of bad writing this stuff, because I used to like Wayne Stenehjem, and I used to trust him. But he lost me on two issues last year—the lack of regulation of the oil industry, and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing a defense of the state’s incredibly stupid anti-abortion stance, both carried out under the thumb of Jack Dalrymple. The old Wayne Stenehjem would have told Dalrymple to take a hike. The new one decided he wanted to be the next governor. And he probably will be. Only Doug Burgum stands in his way now.
Sigh. What’s a Democrat to do?