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Port: Who could be North Dakota's next tax commissioner?

Incumbent Tax Commissioner Ryan Raushcenberger's resignation is effective January 3. By that date, Governor Doug Burgum will have to choose a replacement.

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Gov. Doug Burgum, with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, answer questions following a Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, roundtable meeting with Granholm at the Energy and Environmental Research Center at UND. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — Ryan Rauschenberger has served as North Dakota's tax commissioner since he was appointed to the position by former Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2013. Today, after hitting another bump on what has been a long road to sobriety, he announced his resignation from the office.

He'll be gone effective Jan. 3.

Per chapter 44-02-03 of the North Dakota Century Code , the decision on who will fill the vacancy is left to Gov. Doug Burgum . People appointed to fill vacancies like these serve only until the next general election, though in this case Rauschenberger's term was up next year anyway.

In years past, the tax commissioner's post has been a stepping stone for some. Former Sens. Kent Conrad , Byron Dorgan and Heidi Heitkamp all did a stint there before moving on to federal office, though it's not clear if that dynamic is still meaningful today.

Who will Burgum choose?

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There's a lot of talk in political circles, as you might expect. North Dakota has a lot of Republicans who wouldn't mind moving up the political ladder, and opportunities to do so without taking on a Republican incumbent don't come along often.

Three of the names thrown around most frequently today are Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford , Sen. Jessica Unruh-Bell and Rep. Michael Howe of West Fargo.

Sanford tells me he's not interested in the job. "I understand why people would think of me since I have a CPA," he said, after extolling Rauschenberger's work and lamenting his resignation, "but it's not something I'm interested in."

Sanford added that he hadn't had any conversations with Burgum about the matter.

Scratch that name.

How about Sen. Unruh-Bell?

U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, right, hosted a roundtable of North Dakota's energy community at Bismarck State College Thursday, featuring state commissioners, industry leaders, and State Sen. Jessica Unruh (D-33), left. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)
U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, right, hosted a roundtable of North Dakota's energy community at Bismarck State College Thursday, featuring state commissioners, industry leaders, and State Sen. Jessica Unruh (D-33), left. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)

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"First and foremost, I want to thank my friend Ryan for his service to the state, and for being a great partner during my time chairing the Senate Finance and Tax Committee. I’m glad to see that he’s prioritizing his health and well-being, and I hope we can all support him in that," she told me when inquired. "As for the appointment to fill his seat, it’s quite incredible to have my work in the Legislature be acknowledged for consideration of an office as important as this. If the governor would consider me for the appointment, it would be an honor to accept."

Unruh-Bell has served District 33 in the Senate since first getting elected in 2012. North Dakota's lawmakers aren't full-time, so her day job is at the North American Coal Corp. where she works as an environmental manager. She has a degree in economics and environmental resources management from NDSU.

As for Howe, who managed Congressman Kelly Armstrong's first federal campaign?

READ MORE FROM ROB PORT

  • Port: Heitkamp says he doesn't own pickup with 'F--- Joe Biden' message

  • Port: Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger should step down and focus on health North Dakota voters have given Rauschenberger two chances to get sober after past incidents, and that's to their credit. Politics can be unforgiving. It was refreshing to see someone get a second chance despite addiction problems. Our society has been making a lot of progress toward not demonizing addiction, and Rauschenberger's ability to stay in office while fighting alcoholism has been a testament to that. But enough is enough. 

  • Port: Can someone explain to me what conservatives stand for these days? If conservatives can't be relied on to consistently promote decency, patriotism, the free exchange of ideas, the free practice of religion, and fiscal restraint, then what is it, exactly, that conservatives stand for?

"I'm actually getting married on New Year's," he told me, and says he hasn't "had much time to consider my career path." He does have aspirations for higher office, but he's looking at the secretary of state's office, where long-time Republican incumbent Al Jaeger is currently serving out his last term.

As for tax commissioner? "I wouldn't be interested," he said.

Who will Democrats run?

Their candidates in 2014 and 2018 didn't fare well, each losing decisively to Rauschenberger despite his well-publicized struggles with alcohol. The Democrats may see an opportunity in taking on a fresh Republican face in an office like this, but they already have other opportunities further up the ballot. Jaeger, as I've already mentioned, is not running for re-election. Also, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem hasn't announced whether he's seeking another term. He told me he was undecided back in July, and that remains the case as of today. "I'm still weighing my decision, which I realize will need to be made soon," he told me.

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North Dakota's Democrats already struggle to recruit competitive candidates for statewide races. I have to think they'll prioritize finding candidates for secretary of state and (if Stenehjem retires) attorney general before tax commissioner.

Whoever Burgum appoints will almost certainly be the odds-on favorite to win the election. Unless Burgum chooses to appoint a placeholder who won't seek election, though that seems unlikely to this observer.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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