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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published June 10 2013

ND Democrats shut out of interim session committee leadership roles

BISMARCK – No Democratic state lawmaker will serve as a chair or vice-chair of an interim committee during the 2013-14 interim session.

This was a concern Monday for the Democratic members on the Legislative Management Committee, the 17 state senators and representatives that oversee the interim session.

The committee met at the Capitol to place the state’s 141 legislators on 22 committees that will carry out the various studies that were approved by the governing committee May 21 or mandated to study during the legislative session.

The issue of committee chairs, raised by Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, was whether giving the chairmanship positions to all Republicans is a partisan decision and might create more partisanship during the interim session, what she calls a nonpartisan time to study issues facing North Dakota.

“The history of legislative management wasn’t followed through this session or last session,” she said. “When you change that history, you do a disservice to the state of North Dakota when you don’t provide opportunities for leadership in the interim.”

Jim Smith, director of Legislative Council, which is made up of nonpartisan attorneys, accountants and researchers, said prior to the 2011-12 interim session, most of the committees were chaired by members of the Legislative Management Committee, which currently includes six Democrats.

But last session, the Legislative Management Chairman Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, changed the structure where very few Legislative Management members served as chairs, reducing the opportunities for Democrats to chair a committee.

Instead other Republican lawmakers were appointed to lead interim committees.

Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature for the past nine sessions.

During the 2009-10 interim session, the Legislative Management Committee consisted of 10 Republicans and seven Democratic members. Democrats chaired eight of the 26 interim committees.

During the 2011-12 interim session, Sen. David O’Connell, of Langsford, was the only Democratic lawmaker to chair a committee.

The current Legislative Management chairman, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, wouldn’t comment Monday on whether the chairmanship selection process should go back to its original format. During the regular session, the majority party gets to appoint its own members as committee chairs. Holmberg said it makes sense to keep the same format during the interim session.

Heckaman disagrees. “The interim committee is doing a study. They are not passing a bill, so I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” she said.

“This is a good opportunity to give other people leadership opportunities.”

Holmberg added the chairmen know what they are doing and will produce helpful and meaningful information through their studies.

“They will come up with a product the Legislature can use,” he said. He also said during his tenure in the Legislature he has never sat on a committee that struggled with partisanship issues, and it shouldn’t be a problem this year.

But Heckaman said it has been a problem.

She pointed out during a 2011 interim committee an attempt to bring information forward was not acknowledged because she said it may have contained information the committee leadership didn’t like.

Also in its approval of the interim session committees, the Legislative Management Committee gave some top positions to freshman legislators, a move Holmberg said isn’t normal.

To name a few, Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, was named vice chair of the interim Administrative Rules Committee and Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, was given the vice chair spot on the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

Holmberg said many young legislators, like Armstrong and Unruh, demonstrated strong leadership during the regular session.

“During their first session, they exhibited a lot of willingness and ability to grow up,” he said.

“We should always encourage them because all of us will be replaced,” he said about the veteran lawmakers.