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Lloyd Omdahl, Published May 27 2013

Omdahl: A change in style is likely

The election of Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, a 38-year veteran of the Legislature and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as chairman of the interim Legislative Management Committee may signal a shift to a more moderate and a more collegial Legislature.

The Legislative Management Committee, formerly known as the Legislative Council, decides the research program between sessions and makes numerous important decisions about the general operation of the Legislature.

To win his new position, Holmberg had to oppose House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who has chaired the Management Committee since 2007.

Concern has been brewing in the Legislature over Carlson’s management style being overly aggressive on many issues. Holmberg, on the other hand, has used his lengthy legislative experience to hone his skills as a consensus builder.

At the same time, Carlson had his supporters. They were appalled at the change. Several of them mourned the change, claiming that Holmberg was too moderate.

Moderate is in the mind of the beholder. The ideological classifications we are allowed to offer in the North Dakota culture are moderate, conservative and ultra-conservative. There are no liberals.

When people move to North Dakota from the eastern states, they are shocked to find that Democrats and Republicans look so much alike. So who is conservative and who is moderate? If a moderate looks like a liberal, then that usually means the classification is coming from an ultra-conservative.

Holmberg refuses to accept an ideological label. He has said that political labels “get in the way of the Legislature.” He is right. They can be the proverbial “red herrings” that frustrate coherent debate and responsible decisions.

The style of operating the Legislative Management Committee is important. For decades, especially when John Olsrud was the director, the committee maintained nonpartisan neutrality in the selection and staffing of the interim studies.

This nonpartisan experience during the interim helped cool the ardor of the ideologues during the regular session. In this neutral interim environment, they were able to experience each other as human beings and not villains.

While some may expect a significant moderate shift in the legislature’s policies with the election of Holmberg, this is not likely to occur. Holmberg is not the type of leader who will try to drag other legislators to his predetermined point of view.

As a true consensus builder, he will do more to facilitate the input of legislators from all ideological persuasions. So the ultra-conservatives who have become alarmed with the leadership turnover have little to fear. It’s just that the playing field will be more open for everyone.

If there is moderation, it will appear in style more than in substance. And that will be a significant contribution to the legislative process.

A few decades ago, the Legislature was full of moderates who could disagree and still work together. In the Senate were such standouts as Don Holand of Fargo; P. L. Foss of Valley City; Roland Meidinger of Jamestown; Clyde Duffy of Devils Lake; Evan Lips of Bismarck; Frank Wenstrom of Williston; Rolland Redlin and Chet Reiten, both of Minot; C. W. Schrock of New Rockford; George Longmire of Grand Forks; Ralph Dewing of Columbus; and the list goes on. It is interesting that we can name so many moderates and still have many others unmentioned.

These legislators were real problem-solvers and wasted little time on the peripheral issues that consumed recent sessions.

Looking at Holmberg’s leadership in the Senate Appropriations Committee, he will very likely ranked with these outstanding legislators from the past.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.