The North Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments Friday on how a District 8 House seat should be filled. No matter how justices rule, there really won’t be a winner -- just hard feelings.
Gov. Doug Burgum was miffed with Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, who helped orchestrate a change in how the Legislature handled the governor’s budget proposal in 2019. As Burgum said, legislators basically tossed it in the trash.
Burgum got payback by maneuvering David Andahl of Baldwin and Dave Nehring of Bismarck into getting District 8’s nominations for the House. They then defeated Delzer in the primary. The governor’s plan began to fall apart when Andahl died of COVID-19 before the general election.
His death came too close to the election and the ballot couldn’t be changed. Nehring and Andahl won the election with 41% and 36% of the vote respectively. Democrat Kathrin Volochenko of Mercer came in third with 11% of the vote.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion that the District 8 Republican Executive Committee could select Andahl’s replacement. Before the committee could act, Burgum appointed Washburn coal executive Wade Boeshans to fill the seat, citing a constitutional provision.
Burgum filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to uphold his authority. This week the District 8 Republican Executive Committee selected Delzer to fill the seat and Volochenko intervened in the court case, arguing she should be declared the winner.
In the past, seats that became vacant were filled by the party in the district that held the seat. This was done recently for a Democrat legislator in Grand Forks. Burgum is trying to change the process, and the justices will decide whether he can.
This is largely an intra-party dispute between Republicans, with Democrats trying to take the opportunity to get another seat. If the Democrats should get the seat, it won’t make a difference because the Republicans have such a large majority.
No matter who wins, it’s going to result in bruised egos that will carry over into the legislative session that begins in January. It has the potential to create an ugly situation that could slow down the Legislature's work.
This will be a crucial session that must deal with the pandemic and reduced revenue from the oil patch. It should be a time for compromise and solutions, not infighting.
Burgum has reason to be angry about his treatment during the 2019 session. His budget proposal, which required a lot of work, was discarded. The governor, however, devised the wrong approach to resolving the disagreement.
Instead of pouring money into the defeat of Delzer, he should have worked to patch up the differences with Republican legislators. Former governors have quickly learned it’s difficult to fight and beat the majority party.
Even Burgum’s choice of Boeshans is worrisome to the Tribune editorial board. Boeshans may be well qualified, but appointing an energy executive to a Legislature dealing with many energy issues seems out of line. It’s one thing to run and be elected; it’s another to be handed the job.
Delzer, at least, had been elected in the district in the past. Of course, the court might side with Volochenko. It seems unlikely, but it would be an ironic end to the spat.
Whomever the court favors, it will be time to cool off and find common ground. Maybe agreement can be reached on legislation clarifying how legislative seats are filled under different scenarios.
That would be better than another fight before the North Dakota Supreme Court.
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