If you were to walk around the Capitol when lawmakers were around you’d maybe get a sense of cordialness. Smiles followed by a greeting are common and expected. You may not notice the underlying stress for some individuals as they’re being pressured to keep certain lawmakers happy but also do the right thing for the people they represent. Those smiles in the hallway often lend itself as a cover for the disappointment in a vote earlier that day.
The culture of intimidation in North Dakota politics is real. You’re either with us or against us is the mindset from a handful of powerful legislators. If you choose to publicly go against them, they’ll cut the funding to your program or find another way to punish you. But you damn sure better smile and say hello next time they see you in the hall.
I want to give you a sense of how this culture impacts decisions in Bismarck. I’ll share a multi-post series focused on specific groups of decision makers. Part 1 will focus on lobbyists.
The best way to describe this culture is to give you a couple of specific examples of it at work. Earlier in 2016 the state budget began to fall way short of projections which forced the Governor to indiscriminately cut funding to programs across the board. Members of the Dem-NPL minority called twice for a special session to more strategically adjust the budget. Those calls were rejected by the Republican Governor.
Following our request, I attended an interim Human Services committee meeting in Grand Forks. During committee breaks, I’d be met by lobbyists who would literally whisper and thank us for our request. I responded that if they felt that way they should publicly put pressure on the Governor and the majority. This would help remove the partisan appearance of it all. “We don’t dare; we can’t for obvious reasons.” Basically, they wouldn’t do what they felt was right because of likely retaliation from the power brokers in Bismarck. Culture of intimidation.
A more blatant example occurred when the special session to “fix” the budget finally took place. After the decision had been made to bring us back, our phones started to ring. Directors of nursing homes were reaching out, begging for a fix. Senator Tim Mathern not only introduced an alternative budget to do just that but twice he offered a very specific amendment to the GOP budget when they chose to leave nursing homes out. It accomplished the needs we heard from the folks on the ground. You would think their lobbyist would back such a move. You’d be wrong. The paid lobbyist for the nursing homes, Shelly Peterson, decided to not even show up to the Capitol. Shelly is very good at what she does, knows the process, and has helped advance the needs of nursing homes and their residents for years. But she dropped the ball here. Following the special session, Shelly was interviewed and said they hadn’t taken a position on the amendment but they’d been promised by the majority that they’d be taken care of in January when lawmakers gather again. Remember, the budget bill couldn’t be changed according to Sen. Ray Holmberg. That has not sat well with the nursing home directors I’ve talked to since. Rather than taking immediate and direct action that would benefit their constituents, they caved to the political pressures of a supermajority. Culture of intimidation.
Besides, there are no guarantee lawmakers will appropriate the necessary dollars in January. As we’ve seen in the past, promises are meant to be broken by some in the most powerful leadership positions. Remember when Rep. Al Carlson said he wouldn’t touch the oil tax shortly before he introduced a bill to lower the oil tax? Here is a quick reminder:
But I digress.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen lawmakers berate lobbyists when they actually do take a stand on a bill. No wonder why they sometimes fail to do so. Following the public hearing for one of the many anti-abortion bills in 2013, Former State Senator Margaret Sitte lashed out at a lobbyist in the Senate Chamber. I know, because I was at my desk across from Sitte’s and heard the whole thing. It was not only a display of childishness but down right rudeness from Sitte. Nobody deserved that treatment for doing their job.
I bring up the culture of intimidation because it has a dramatic impact on the decisions being made in Bismarck. It lends itself to following individuals with extreme or specific agendas even when a silent majority of people know there is a better, more pragmatic way forward. It skews priorities, and it diminishes instances of compromise and moderation.