FARGO — Hecklers interrupted a speaker from a pro-business advocacy group who was making a presentation touting the benefits of low tax rates to the North Dakota Legislature’s Legacy Fund Earnings Committee.

The disruption, which briefly halted the meeting, happened Wednesday, Nov. 13, when the committee was meeting in the alumni center at North Dakota State University.

Jonathan Williams, chief economist and vice president of the American Legislative Exchange Council, had just begun his presentation when a group of about 10 hecklers in the audience began shouting, including obscenities.

“I’d say it was a major disruption,” said Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, the committee’s chairman. “There was a lot of yelling. It wasn’t us doing that.”

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After trying to gavel the session to order, Pollert recessed the committee meeting until order could be restored. He estimated the demonstration lasted three or four minutes and the entire episode, including the recess, lasted five to 10 minutes.

Fargo police were called to the scene at 10:56 a.m., along with NDSU police, said Jessica Schindeldecker, a Fargo police spokeswoman.

“Upon our arrival, the officer noted, there were no disruptions in their presence, and the persons causing the disturbance had left by the time officers arrived,” she said in an email. Officers remained there until 12:30 p.m. “No report filed or arrests made.”

Zac Echola, one of the protesters, said the disruption was to protest the 50 minutes given to an out-of-state advocacy group, when citizens who testified to present ideas for spending earnings of the $6.36 billion Legacy Fund were limited to 10 minutes.

“It was planned,” Echola said of the demonstration. “We don’t think there needs to be a shadow organization running the state Legislature.”

Zac Echola helped form the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Forum file photo
Zac Echola helped form the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Forum file photo

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ALEC presents model legislation that reduces regulation and taxes to the benefit of corporations and against the interest of workers, said Echola, who is a member of the Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, whose members staged the protest.

“They produce heinous bills over and over and over, all over the country,” Echola said.

The theme of Williams’ presentation was that “all taxes negatively affect economic growth,” and that “income-based taxes are economically damaging to states,” according to written testimony he gave to the committee.

More than half of the committee’s members are ALEC members, Echola said. ALEC members have persisted in pushing the elimination of North Dakota’s state income tax even though proposals have repeatedly been rejected and are not favored by voters, he said.

“That’s all they want out of the Legacy Fund,” Echola said, referring to those seeking to cut the income tax. “They want to create a legacy for billionaires.”

Pollert said Williams’ testimony was suggested by Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier. “That’s why they were invited,” he said.

Protests began “even before he got in a full sentence or two,” Pollert said.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, also a member of the committee, said those who want to address the committee should follow protocol and sign up to testify from the podium.

“Everybody has a right to speak,” but should wait for the public comment portion of the meeting to be heard instead of interrupting, she said.

“It doesn’t help your cause to do it in this manner,” she said. “You can disagree on something” without being disruptive.

The committee also met Tuesday night, when people packed a room in the alumni center to present ideas about how to spend the earnings of the Legacy Fund.

“Last night it was very cordial,” Pollert said. “I made sure everybody got a chance to speak. That’s the protocol.”

Echola said: “I don’t think they deserve respect. The entire committee got exactly the respect they earned.”