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Mike Jacobs: A hodgepodge of important news in North Dakota

From politics to the environment to higher education, there were big happenings last week in the state.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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"Hodgepodge" is such a wonderful word. Those rhyming syllables convey resonance, if not gravitas. It means things thrown together, a jumble in other words. In this case, the things thrown together are news items. They share two things in common: they convey important news, and they all occurred in North Dakota.

The most expensive, the most local and the most consequential in the long term, is the North Dakota Industrial Commission's approval of a carbon capture plant. The idea is to sequester carbon produced by burning lignite coal at the Milton R. Young Station near Center, which is in North Dakota’s coal country.

The price tag is somewhere around $1 billion, and Minnkota Power Cooperative, the outfit behind the plan, is still mulling the cost. A decision about proceeding should come within a year, Adam Willis reported on the front page of the Herald on Sunday, Jan. 23.

“Project Tundra,” as Minnkota has named this undertaking, has had a big impact on Grand Forks. Minnkota is headquartered in the city, and the co-op has worked with UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center for more than a decade, examining the feasibility of the project, looking for ways to mitigate any adverse environmental effects, and getting ready for the big day, which came Friday, Jan. 21, when the three members of the Industrial Commission unanimously approved the project. The commission consists of the governor, the attorney general and the state agriculture commissioner. Among its subsidiary entities is the state Department of Mineral Resources.

Friday’s meeting had an air of giddiness about it. Willis reported that Lynn Helms, director of the department, called the decision “hugely important.” Gov. Doug Burgum was even more ecstatic, declaring that Friday was “not only a great day for North Dakota but a great day for the country.”

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There are critics, of course, and frankly, I would like to be among them. Earth would clearly be better off if we could wean ourselves from fossil fuels, but that doesn’t appear to be possible. Of the alternatives, only wind has been developed at scale, and wind power has its own environmental issues. The “cold turkey” approach to carbon that some environmentalists advocate, is just not practical. It would cause economic and social disruption that we aren’t prepared to deal with.

The second item in our hodgepodge is the surprise retirement of state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck. Becker is the most creative political figure to appear in North Dakota in this century. He’s the brain behind the Bastiat Caucus, a loosely organized group of about 30 legislators, mostly House members, who champion individual liberties ranging from gun rights to opposition to mask mandates. At one point, he applied to be the state health officer – he’s a plastic surgeon. He started his own televised talk show as a way to spread his views and to mock others.

His legislative record is spotty. Not all of his efforts were successful, including repeated attacks on the higher education system. In the long run, it may be his work on civil asset forfeiture that defines his legislative accomplishments.

He’ll leave the Legislature when his term ends in November, wrapping up a decade as a lawmaker. In his retirement announcement he made a bold prediction: If the Republican Party rejects more conservative ideas and protects the status quo, it will split in two.

The remaining items in our hodgepodge relate to the state’s higher education system.

The first provides evidence that the Legislature’s decision to keep the names of applicants for certain public jobs — such as university presidents — secret until finalists are chosen has not had the desired effect. The argument was that publicity deterred applications from sitting presidents. There are no sitting presidents on the list of finalists for the presidency of North Dakota State University, though two are acting presidents

The same thing happened with UND’s presidential search in 2019. The Board of Higher Education turned down requests from Forum Communications Company to learn the number of applicants.

The NDSU search did produce two women candidates, indicating that the board’s oft-repeated paeans to gender equity might be gaining traction. UND’s search had only one female finalist.

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Separately, UND abandoned work on a gender inclusion policy that imagined requiring that individuals be addressed by the pronouns of their choice. This came after the Catholic bishops of Fargo and Bismarck objected to the policy.

Blowback from another quarter might have been more decisive in UND’s decision – a threat that funding for the university might be cut. The last legislative session passed legislation barring campuses from accepting money from organizations that accept money from groups that provide abortion services, an ominous precedent.

Regardless of the merits of the inclusion policy, the idea that legislative threats drive campus policy is dangerous. Lawmakers might want to review a state Supreme Court case prompted by the late Referral King Robert McCarney’s effort to deny funding to UND. UND is a constitutional entity that is entitled to funding, the court declared.

It might not hurt for lawmakers to check out the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well. That’s the one that guarantees freedom of speech.

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

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