The Culture of Intimidation (Part 2: State Agencies)

State agencies are not immune to partisan political pressures. In fact, many of the people chosen to run these agencies are politically appointed which lends itself to kowtowing to party leadership. There are instances where department heads internally separate from the direction taken by their elected counterparts. The difficulty is often getting them to go on record and publicly state their vision.

The pressures are real and at times understandable. A department representative usually won’t take a position on a bill if the Governor himself has not weighed in. It is a good cover and one I can understand. You wouldn’t always be willing to publicly go against your boss either.

When the debate raged over the Outdoor Heritage Fund, it left an odd void in expert testimony. Special interests in the wildlife community were pitted against the power brokers in state government. Republican leadership, the oil lobbyists, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, damn near everyone you’d see at a high dollar Republican fundraiser was there to push their watered down version of the fund in 2013. Remember, this followed an attempt to get the outdoor heritage idea on the ballot in 2012 but failed due to petition fraud. The Good old boys (as Governor Burgum labeled them) saw the writing on the wall, the poll numbers showing strong support for the idea during the height of the oil boom, and attempted to cut it off at the knees by offering a proposal some felt was below modest. One group that was noticeably absent in this debate was the North Dakota Game and Fish. Why they should have been more active is because of Directive A: “including projects that create fish and wildlife habitat and provide access for sportsmen.” Clearly, in their scope of work and expertise. Well, perhaps I should say they were publicly absent because behind the brass rail they’d tell us more needed to be done than what was being offered. Unfortunately, none of them would publicly push their opinion.

Speaking of outdoors, here is a link to view the environmental incident reports that have occurred in North Dakota. There have been a lot of incidents for the ND Department of Health to inspect over the life of this Bakken oil development. Some have contested for years the Department has been understaffed to fully investigate and oversee these incidents. Since former Governor Dalrymple wouldn’t expand the division to what Senator Tim Mathern considered adequate to get the job done promptly, Mathern offered an amendment to the Department’s budget. The Department admitted to being behind inspections. In fact, some of the spills hadn’t been revisited in over two years. No worry though said Dave Glatt of the Department; they can handle the inspections with the staff they had. In other words, they admit to being behind but refuse to take the steps necessary to get caught up because of the demands of leadership.

“NO NEW STATE EMPLOYEES!!!” – Basically the entire House Appropriations.

Recently I hosted News and Views with Joel Heitkamp on 790AM KFGO. Dave Glatt was my guest to talk about the recent, “incident” near Belfield where approximately 176,000 gallons of oil spilled from a pipeline into a creek. I asked Glatt about the potential need to expand his Department under Governor Burgum. You can listen to his answer here (audio trimmed for just this answer):

Then there is the Department of Human Services. DHS has become the largest state agency in North Dakota. Because of that, they will be in the sights of budget-busting legislators in the 65th session. Or have they allowed that to begin already by being too intimidated by legislative leadership? You know my answer. To demonstrate it, I’ll point once again to the special session held this year.

The allotment process (across-the-board budget cuts) dramatically impacted DHS. Not only did it foolishly cut state dollars indiscriminately, but it also cut the federal matching dollars for vital programs that help our most vulnerable. When the GOP budget “fix” was presented, they didn’t reverse those indiscriminate cuts. As I’ve stated before, the Dem-NPL minority offered amendments to address this. The offer would have transferred $29 million of state dollars to DHS and would have received $56 million in federal matching dollars. Nobody from the Department publicly supported the move even though they knew it was adequate and doable. Instead, whispers of thanks accompanied crossed fingers that there will be enough political courage to do it in the upcoming session.

What irritates me about agencies not speaking up for what they think is the right course, even if it is against the Governor or legislative leadership views, is the lack of expertise in the decisions made. Yes, some of these hires and appointments are because of campaign contributions, loyalty, and being the relative of a legislative leader (more on that to come!). But, a vast majority of the individuals are overly intelligent in their line of work and they care. It is unfortunate they are censored by individuals in power who have a narrow focus or ideological tendencies that hold back programs that advance our state. We should put knowledge, experience, and expertise above intimidation and political ego in North Dakota.


Tyler Axness
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