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North Dakota House budget chief's primary loss could complicate 2021 Legislature

North Dakota House budget chief's primary loss could complicate 2021 Legislature

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Executive and legislative relationships could be set back as a result of Gov. Doug Burgum's hefty donations to a political group that successfully targeted a powerful fellow Republican in the June election, according to a top House lawmaker.

Burgum disputes that he's done anything out of the ordinary and denies having a rocky relationship with the Legislature.

Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, appeared to lose his bid for reelection Tuesday to GOP newcomers Dave Nehring and David Andahl, whom Burgum endorsed. Nehring and Andahl are expected to move on to November to face Democrats Linda Babb and Kathrin Volochenko for District 8's two House seats.

Since 2011, Delzer has chaired the House Appropriations Committee. He has served for nearly 30 years in the House. He and Burgum tangled over budget issues, including a rule change Delzer led that sidelined Burgum's 2019 budget blueprint. Burgum later said it felt his recommendations had been "tossed in the garbage."

Delzer told the Tribune on Wednesday that he appreciated the opportunity to serve. He said his future holds being "a farmer and a citizen of McLean County and the great state of North Dakota." He thanked voters for their support over the years.

"It’s an honor and privilege that I’ll always cherish and be very thankful for,” Delzer said.

He also said Burgum's $1.85 million in donations to the Dakota Leadership PAC "certainly" had an influence on the four-way Republican District 8 House race.

Burgum downplays donations to group targeting fellow Republicans
GOP newcomers appear to edge out North Dakota House budget chief

Now the powerful seat leading the House Appropriations Committee is open for 2021. And potential difficulties lie on the road ahead for relations between state lawmakers and Burgum, if he and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford are reelected in November.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, will select the new chairperson during the Legislature's organizational session in December, if House Republicans elect him again to the leadership, which he intends to seek. Republicans control the House 79-15.

It's unclear who might emerge as the new chairperson. Pollert declined to say if any representatives have expressed interest and did not say if he has anyone in mind, but "those discussions are happening already," he said.

He also believes Burgum's donations influenced Delzer's race.

"It had a big impact, and yes, there will be difficulties in the future," Pollert said, declining to expound beyond his work as leader in 2019 to improve House and executive branch relations.

"This sets it back," he said.

Burgum has said that the Dakota Leadership PAC, which is run by former advisers, will be around for 2022, 2024 and other elections to advocate "a North Dakota point of view." 

The wealthy former software executive downplayed his contributions and involvement in legislative and state treasurer primary races as nothing new in politics. Delzer criticized him for disrespecting the separation of powers with his big donations.

Burgum told reporters Wednesday that he maintains a good relationship with the Legislature, pointing to his work with majority and minority leaders amid the coronavirus pandemic.

He disputes the "narrative" that his relationship with lawmakers has been prickly in the past, despite his 2016 campaign statements to break up establishment politics and a 2017 interbranch lawsuit over executive and legislative authority.

"We feel like we're headed in a positive direction and we want to just continue to build on the success that we've had in the past and we'll continue to work and do whatever it takes to build strong partnerships," Burgum said. "We know that teamwork is the way to get things done."

Delzer's term ends Dec. 1. Pollert said he intends to have Delzer involved in legislative work up to that date, "because of his vast experience." The two spoke on Wednesday morning, and Delzer offered to aid the transition to a new chairperson, Pollert said.

"He's still being the ultimate team player," Pollert said. 

In the 2019-20 interim, Delzer serves on several committees that have roles in fiscal policy and budget decision-making, including the Budget Section, Government Finance Committee, Legislative Revenue Advisory Committee and Legacy Fund Earnings Committee.

Delzer's loss follows the unsuccessful 2018 reelection bid of House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo. They each had served since the early 1990s. Loss of longtime lawmakers' institutional knowledge might mean more work or more preparation for other representatives, Pollert said.

"It's a difference and we move forward and there's always somebody ready for that challenge," he said.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said the opportunity of a new chairperson "certainly opens the door for us to be more forward-looking in how we do our budgeting process." 

"I think there's an evolving thought among legislators from all parties in regards to the opportunity for bonding, how do we look more long-term to invest in North Dakota over multiple generations and using the resources we have today to set a good foundation for the future," said Boschee, who added that he and Delzer worked well together, despite disagreements.

Boschee, who is seeking a third term, also sees "increased division" ahead between the governor's office and majority House Republicans. He expects there to be 2021 legislation or ballot initiatives around money influencing elections.

Doug Larsen, who won Republican voters' nomination for District 34 Senate over endorsed Al Anderson, said he thinks Burgum's "blatant money droppings worked against him." Burgum gave $1,500 to Anderson, whom he and Sanford also endorsed.

Larsen attributed his success to a consistent message and hard work, knocking on more than 2,500 doors for 39 days after the governor lifted business restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He hopes Mandan-area residents voted for him rather than against what he called "outside interference" in the race, pointing to prolific mailers and Burgum's donations.

"I think our district at least answered, 'Well, we don't want that here in North Dakota," Larsen said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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