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ND Republicans at odds over appointment of Dems to interim committee chairs

Al Carlson1 / 2
Ray Holmberg2 / 2

BISMARCK – Republicans in North Dakota’s GOP-controlled House and Senate are at odds over the appointment of minority Democrats to leadership positions on interim committees, a practice House Majority Leader Al Carlson abandoned four years ago.

Legislative Management, the panel of 17 lawmakers that carries out certain functions of the Legislature between its biennial sessions, voted 11-6 late Tuesday to fill 20 of the 24 interim committee chairmanships with Republicans and the other four with Democrats.

All six votes no came from House Republicans. Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting yes.

“We were basically not even listened to and were just pushed aside, and they did what they wanted to do,” Carlson said.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks who was re-elected chairman of Legislative Management over Carlson in an identical 11-6 vote last month, said the interim session is a time for reflection and information gathering and is less political than the regular session, “so I don’t have any problem going back to what we did for 30 years.”

He added that GOP lawmakers will still have at least a two-thirds majority on every committee, reflecting their 32-15 majority in the Senate and 71-23 advantage in the House.

“Every legislator is a leader. They wouldn’t be there otherwise. And therefore there’s nothing wrong with having legislators have access to some leadership roles,” he said. “But again, the whole thing is still controlled by Republicans.”

Democrats chaired no committees during the 2013-14 interim session and only one during the 2011-12 interim. Prior to that, most interim committees were chaired by both GOP and Democratic members of Legislative Management. Democrats chaired eight of the 26 interim committees in 2009-10.

Carlson changed the structure in 2011 when he was chairman of Legislative Management, instead recommending appointment of other Republican lawmakers to lead interim committees.

He said Wednesday that majority party members chair all regular session committees, and having them chair interim committees maintains consistency and better reflects the will of voters.

“We weren’t appointed as the majority, we were elected, and the people obviously like our policies,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, welcomed the return to what he called “a longstanding tradition that only recently was dispensed with for basically partisan reasons.” He and Holmberg said the Democrats appointed to chair the Human Services, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Economic Impact and Tribal and State Relations committees are all competent in their subject areas. Two Democrats also were appointed to vice chairman posts.

Carlson questioned whether the appointments were tied to Holmberg’s election as chairman.

“Who knows whether they promised that support to get him elected chairman? I don’t know,” he said. “But either way, it’s wrong policy-wise to do that.”

Schneider said Democrats did stress the importance of bipartisanship in the interim.

“There’s no quid pro quo or trade or anything, but we thought Sen. Holmberg would be most likely to bring back that tradition, and the people of North Dakota will be well-served by that,” he said.

In the end, all interim committee recommendations go to the full Legislature, Holmberg noted.

“Al Carlson has his role to look out for the interests of the House majority,” he said. “The chairman of Legislative Management, in our philosophy, looks out for the interest of the institution, and there’s a vast difference.”

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.