JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Whither The Measure 6 Coalition?

Word comes this week that the organizing committee for a group of North Dakotans who want to raise North Dakota’s Oil Extraction Tax back to the level it was at before the Legislature cut it in 2015 has decided to postpone its initiated measure campaign. Postpone but not abandon. A wise choice, I’d say.

Although the group already has its petition language approved by the Secretary of State, signature-gathering time is short, and the task becomes even more difficult without the institutional support of organizations that were instrumental in the initial passage of the tax in 1980.

To review: We have an Oil Extraction Tax because of an initiated measure passed by the people of the state by a wide margin nearly 40 years ago. It came during our state’s first short-lived oil boom and was set at 6.5 percent of the price of a barrel of oil, which was added to an existing Oil Production Tax of 5 percent, giving us a total tax on oil of 11.5 percent. One of the highest, if not THE highest in the country.

The measure passed at a time when oil was gushing from the ground in western North Dakota and red ink was gushing from state coffers and agricultural balance sheets after the devastating hard times in agriculture in the 1970s.

The 11.5 percent tax stuck in the craw of the oil industry and Republican politicians for more than 30 years, although Republicans, who generally have governed the state since 1993, enjoyed the fruits of the income from the tax and the budgets it balanced for them.

But finally, in 2015, at the peak of the last oil boom when the state was flush with cash from the oil tax and a humming economy, Republicans mustered the courage to tackle the citizen-initiated tax and cut it from 6.5 percent to 5 percent. It was a devastating miscalculation. Within weeks of the governor signing the bill, oil prices began a death spiral, dropping from more than $60 per barrel to less than $30 (I don’t think there was any relationship between our tax cut and the price of oil, but still … ), and state budgets began bleeding red ink again.

It’s taken until now, more than two years later, for the price of oil to reach above $60 again. That combination of low oil prices and a lower oil tax means legislators have been forced to cut budgets, including some popular programs most North Dakotans like, such as property tax subsidies.

So sponsors of the current proposed initiated measure figured the time was right to go back to the people and ask them to raise the tax back to 6.5 percent. And they’re probably right. But there’s a difference between now and 1980. It’s the players.

Among political observers my age, we speak with reverence and awe of the “Measure 6 Coalition” — and those who organized it. It was probably the most powerful political coalition ever put together in North Dakota. It was the group that passed Measure 6, which created the 6.5 percent Oil Extraction Tax.

It was four organizations, led by four extraordinary men:

  • The North Dakota Farmers Union and its president, Stanley Moore.
  • The North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and its executive director, Chub Ulmer.
  • The North Dakota Education Association and its executive director, Adrian Dunn.
  • The North Dakota AFL-CIO and its president, Jim Gerl.

Those four organizations probably represented a third of North Dakota’s population. And their members were activists, willing to rally behind their leaders because of the enormous respect for those four men, longtime leaders, giants of their era. I knew each of them personally and treasured any time they would share with me, sitting at their feet, as I was just entering the world of liberal political activism.

The four were brought together by then-Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan and two of his chief lieutenants, Kent Conrad and Jim Lange. Dorgan, who had led the successful fight in the 1970s for implementation of a severance tax on coal, was the face of the movement. Conrad was the strategist. Lange was the number cruncher who figured out how and where to get the votes to pass it.

Those were halcyon days for populist activism in North Dakota, but they were nearing their end. 1980 was the year of the Reagan landslide. It was a wave election for Republicans, nationwide and in North Dakota. Republicans won every statewide election here but two in 1980, including the governor’s race, which saw the defeat of incumbent Gov. Art Link by Attorney General Allen Olson.

The only two Democrats to survive that election were the two men who went out on the stump and tirelessly, relentlessly, advocated for the passage of Measure 6, the Oil Extraction Tax: Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad. Dorgan was leaving his post to run for the U.S. Congress, a seat vacated by Mark Andrews, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Milton Young. Conrad was running for tax commissioner, to replace Dorgan in that office. Both won by wide margins.

The two were the only Democratic-NPL candidates to campaign on a tax increase in a year when the country was headed inevitably to the right behind Reagan —  the rest of the Democratic-NPL ticket shied away. But Dorgan and Conrad had set the stage earlier, with their successful coal tax effort in the mid-1970s. Dorgan had even held a series of debates around the state with then-Republican House Majority Leader Earl Strinden, the two arguing both sides of a coal severance tax. It was classic North Dakota politics, the kind we don’t see any more. And Conrad was Dorgan’s chief strategist, behind the scenes then.

The pair, Dorgan and Concrad, were classic populists, leading the charge first against Big Coal and then Big Oil — and the people embraced them.

But in the end, it was Gerl, Ulmer, Moore and Dunn, the four coalition leaders, and their members, who swept the new oil tax into state law. And that’s what’s missing today. Those organizations, and their leaders.

To be fair, I can’t say whether the four leaders of those organizations today have the leadership capabilities to undertake such an effort, but what is obvious from the words of today’s organizing committee for the new initiated measure, is they are not yet all on board. Nor is there a Byron Dorgan or a Kent Conrad at the ready to lead them.

In the words of the organizing committee’s leaders, which I received in an e-mail today, “What we lack is endorsement from groups and organizations and their communication channels and infrastructure, all of which we need to get our message out to voters.”

Well. That could not be more clear. So they’ve made a timely, wise decision.

The strategy shifts now to the introduction of a measure in the 2019 Legislature to raise the Oil Extraction Tax back to 6.5 percent — an effort not likely to succeed, given the makeup of the Legislature. That’s what the Measure 6 Coalition understood back in 1980, and why they went directly to the people. Still, a concerted effort in the Legislature could attract a lot of attention and set the stage for an initiated measure in 2020.

But the Measure 6 Coalition does not exist today. A new coalition, with new leaders, must be assembled. Of the four leaders from 1980, only Jim Gerl is still alive. I think he’s approaching 80 and spends much time in Florida. But maybe we could get him back here to consult a bit.

I hope that the organizing committee for this effort can succeed in putting a new-old coalition back together. For in that effort lies success.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Donald Trump, Harold Hamm And Kevin Cramer

Most of my Democratic friends have a hard time understanding why I like Kevin Cramer. I think it’s because they’ve never been a part of a brotherhood. Let me explain.

I’m was thinking about this Wednesday because of Gary Emineth’s announcement Tuesday that Kevin Cramer would run for the U.S. Senate against Heidi Heitkamp. Thanks for that, Gary. I’m sure Kevin is grateful as well. Saved him a whole bunch of time and trouble putting together an announcement statement and lining up a place for a press conference and notifying the media and all the rigamarole that goes with announcing a campaign.

A couple of my Republican friends told me they are disappointed in the way things turned out. I think they wanted Emineth to run and Kevin to stay in the House. Well, me too. More about that in a minute.

I’ll give you a couple of names of people who are not disappointed.

Hey, Kevin …

Donald Trump and Harold Hamm. The two of them were the most instrumental in getting Kevin to change his mind, after he announced he would seek re-election to the House and not make the race for the Senate. Both put some persuasive pressure on Kevin to run against Heidi, but I’m told it was Hamm who closed the deal, after Trump had called Kevin and been turned down.

Harold Hamm, the deal closer.

I don’t know what Hamm promised, but it must have been significant, because Kevin was pretty sure, to the point of a public announcement, he would seek re-election to what most people consider a safe seat, and now he’s giving up a lot of security on a big gamble.

Well, of course, as of today this is all speculation, because there’s no formal announcement yet from Kevin, and likely no one except Harold and Kevin know what the deal was.

Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.
Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.

I’m disappointed because I’ve considered Kevin a friend for many years, and I don’t like it when my friends lose elections, no matter what party they belong to. And he’s pretty likely going to lose against Heidi. Which is OK, I guess. Even good, in fact, because Heidi’s been my friend longer than Kevin, and we all know the importance of seniority in politics.

I’ve known Heidi since her 1984 campaign for North Dakota State auditor. Anybody else remember that? I got to know Kevin in 1992, when he was chairman and executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. He was a good one, unlike most of those party hacks who preceded him. But I need to back up a minute.

I had the job of executive director of the other party, the Democratic-NPL Party, in 1984, the year Bud Sinner got elected governor. I’m not boasting when I say I played a pretty significant role in his election.

After the election, as his transition team began filling available jobs in the Capitol, I got a call from Joe Lamb, who was chairing the transition team, asking me if I wanted a job in government. I said I was pretty happy with what I was doing, but if it meant a pay raise, I’d consider it.

I considered it, but I stayed on in my job with the Democratic-NPL Party until summer, meanwhile looking around at what might be the best job in state government that I dared ask for. I found one. I called Chuck Fleming, who had been Sinner’s campaign manager and then became his chief of staff in the governor’s office, and said a really cool job would be the manager of Lake Metigoshe State Park. I loved parks, and I loved camping, and I loved the Turtle Mountains, and I told Chuck that if I could manage a whole state political party, surely I could manage one square mile in the Turtle Mountains. Chuck said he would see what he could do.

A few days later he called me back and said, “Sorry, but you have to be QUALIFIED to get that job.” Turns out it is a civil service position that falls under the state’s personnel system, not subject to patronage. Dang.

But Chuck had another idea. He said I might make a pretty good State Tourism director, and that job might come available. Well, I didn’t know much about tourism, but I knew enough about marketing, which was what the job was all about, and apparently you didn’t have to be QUALIFIED to take THAT job, so I took it.

I wasn’t prepared for the phone call the next day from a reporter from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead asking me what my qualifications were to be Tourism director. I stammered out something like “Well, I know the state pretty well, and I’ve camped in every state park in North Dakota …”

The answer looked pretty lame in the paper the next day, but somehow I got by that and had a fun seven  years in the Tourism Office.

Fast-forward to November 1992. I resigned from the Tourism Office that fall, and Ed Schafer got elected governor. Not long after the election, I ran into Kevin Cramer at lunch time at the Peacock Alley in downtown Bismarck, and I congratulated him on a great campaign and on getting Ed, who I liked immensely (and who I had voted for), elected governor.

And I said that now precedent had been set — Sinner got elected on my watch, and I became Tourism director — so now it was his turn. And I said, it is the best job in state government (way better than being a state park manager).

Well, it took Kevin a few months to warm to the idea, but eventually he did it, and held that post a few years, joining the Brotherhood of North Dakota Tourism directors. I was only the fourth person to hold that job in the state’s history, and Kevin became the sixth. Ed kept Tracy Potter, who was Deputy Tourism director when I was there, in the job on an interim basis, until Kevin was ready to leave his post with the party and go to work in government, so Tracy was fifth.

The rest is history. Kevin did a fine job, got promoted to Economic Development director, ran for Congress a couple of times and lost (if you went through his bank statements from his 1996 and 1998 campaigns, you’d find a couple of checks from me in there — sorry, Earl), and he finally did get elected to Congress a dozen or so years later.

He should stay there. He can continue to make as many BAD votes there as he wants to without really doing any harm. Although young Ben Hanson, the Democrat running for that job, would give him a pretty good run for his money. It’s going to be a darn good year for Democrats, and Ben’s a darn good candidate, and you never know …

What I do know is that Ben is the third person, behind Trump and Hamm, who’s really happy to see Kevin make the jump, if that is what happens this week. His job as a candidate just got a whole lot easier, no matter who the Republicans run for that seat.

Questions remain.

  • What of Tom Campbell, the only other serious Republican in the Senate race? He’s rich and could primary Cramer, just like Cramer primaried Brian Kalk six years ago. If not, Campbell could run for the House.
  • But who else might want that House seat? Maybe someone who had it once before, like Rick Berg? That could make for an interesting state convention, and/or primary.
  • And what of Gary Emineth? Well, he’s embarrassed the party by calling the president of the United States (not the current one, but if the shoe fits …) a Piece Of Shit in a Facebook post and might be tempted, but he’s unlikely to get a party endorsement any more. That’s why he pulled out of the Senate race and made Kevin’s announcement for him.

Could I make a prediction? Well, partly. Anticipating this possibility, young Ben Hanson got out there really early and pretty much has a lock on the Democratic-NPL slot. Smart kid. But an open seat for Congress could draw a flood of Republicans to the race. I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as half a dozen.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this Senate race. Let’s wait for Kevin to come home and talk to us.

To paraphrase Priscilla Alden, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Kevin?”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie —A Short Message About Our National Park

This might be the shortest blog post I’ve ever written. Or will ever write. But it’s an important one, so if you are concerned about the possibility of an oil refinery being built next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park as I am, please take just one minute to read it.

I had a chance encounter with Gov. Doug Burgum this weekend. We had a lengthy, frank and off-the-record discussion about the Davis refinery.

Off-the-record, but I think I can share a few things with you after the conversation without him objecting.

First, I don’t think the governor wants an oil refinery next to our national park any more than you and I do, but I believe he is committed to letting the regulatory process play out, without interfering with his agencies.

Second, I think that he believes, as do many of us, that there will be a legal process before construction begins on the refinery and that he is committed to letting that legal process play out as well.

And third, if the refinery gets its permits and survives a legal challenge, I am starting to get the feeling that we might be able to convince the governor to intervene personally with the company and try to get them to move it away from the park.

To convince him, we need to let the governor know that we will support any efforts he undertakes to get the company to move the refinery away from the national park by sending him an e-mail at governor@nd.gov. We can do that now, or we can do that after the legal process is over. But now might be better.

To quote my new online friend and fellow blogger, Judge Tom Davies: Amen.

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — State Of The Union

Well, the groundhog saw his shadow, so six more months of Mueller.

The president might have basked for a while in the glow of his triumphant State of the Union address, of which a whopping 43 percent of Democrats and 109 percent of Republicans approved. Instead, he released The Memo, which instantly changed the tune from Kumbaya at a campfire to something from The Sex Pistols in a mosh pit.

Some had speculated the president would speak in Russian or maybe just plead The Fifth. But if you looked past the Mussolini jaw-jut and his clapping into the microphone, it was a strong “performance” that included numerous complete sentences.

He touted job growth — the most anemic in six years — but growth, nonetheless. He’d followed up on vows to cut regulations, harass immigrants, move the embassy to Jerusalem and restore Americans’ inalienable right to die uninsured.

He’d put someone to the right of Anthonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, with the appointment Mitch McConnell hijacked; the military has ISIS on the run, and the tax break fired up Wall Street. Pretty good stable geniusing.

Conversely, he was too busy golfing to enact sanctions on Russia. Other unfinished business includes firing everyone on the Russian probe.

Let’s go to the score card. So far, the FBI has recorded two guilty pleas, two indictments and a field goal. The president has sacked acting Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and threw incomplete trying to fire Robert Mueller.

The next time you get pulled over, tell the cop he’s fired. See how that works for you.

Meanwhile, the Democrats flunked Body Language 101. They sat and sulked through all the applause lines, thereby proving they hate God, America, cops, soldiers, capitalism, bootstraps, babies, puppies, kittens, sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, country music, assault rifles and Shirley Temple.

The sit-in was the most organized the Democrats have been all year, with the exception of the 15-minute holdout Chuck Schumer staged over the spending bill, which showed more fiscal discipline than we’ve seen in Washington since Andrew Jackson balanced the budget by selling land stolen from the Indians.

Schumer’s insolent slumping was absent only a black leather jacket and a smoldering Marlboro. Nancy Pelosi looked like a Holstein chewing a cud of lemons. Some Democrats even kneeled.

Even Melania threw shade, wearing a liberal white pantsuit and refusing to stand when the thrice-married kitty grabber talked about family values.

Almost as if she believes the fake news about her husband’s tryst with porn star Stormy Daniels, who has been googled more in recent weeks than Butterball at Thanksgiving.

“To put (white pantsuits) on a display like that at a joint session of Congress is undignified to say the least. It violates the common decency of the chamber,” Kevin Cramer said. Back when Democrats wore them.

It couldn’t have gone better for Republicans. Trump looked sane, Democrats like party-poopers. Sean Hannity was feeling so groovy, he loosened his tie at bedtime. Rush Limbaugh attempted a somersault that turned into a bizarre yoga move and a pulled hamstring.

The Democratic response came from either Conan O’Brien or Rep. Joseph Kennedy III. Apparently, Franklin Roosevelt IX was busy. It was a heartfelt speech from a millionaire in support of middle-class Americans, but too much Chapstick made it appear Kennedy was drooling. “Ask not what your country can drool for you, but what you can drool for your country,” someone tweeted.

Then, the president snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and released the Super Top Secret Memo intended to torpedo the FBI. It cited fake news magazine Mother Jones as one source. The theory is the FBI tried to get Hillary elected, a strategy that included announcing her newest email issues a week before the election.

Democrats claimed The Memo omitted contextual material. Republicans argued, “Hey, that’s how Fox News does it.”

Trump and Republicans, “must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows,” John McCain said. “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”

Paul Ryan said this was about transparency. Thus inspired, Trump immediately released his tax returns. Kidding.

The Memo revealed the FBI was tracking Trump campaign associate and Russianista Carter Page for years. That didn’t exactly restore confidence in All The President’s Men.

The Memo was released Thursday. On Friday, the stock market fell 666 points. Rattled conservative investors checked their 401Ks to see how many rubles they’d lost. Liberals checked their 420Ks. Evangelicals studied Revelations.

If you wanted more proof the universe speaks in metaphors, you need only consider the news the same day The Memo was released.

There was a train wreck involving Republican politicians. The Republican train ran over a garbage truck, killing a blue-collar worker.

There’s a headline that writes itself.

© Tony Bender, 2018

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Should A Governor Take Free Super Bowl Tickets?

I just read on The Forum’s website that Gov. Doug Burgum is taking free tickets to the Super Bowl. “Burgum and first lady, Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, will be attending the game at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as guests of Xcel Energy, which leases a suite at the venue, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.”

“’So they are not paying for their tickets,’ he said.”

Really? Burgum’s going to do that?

Now I understand why there is a petition being circulated to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission. I’ve been skeptical of that idea. No more.

Xcel Energy, one of the biggest corporations in one of the most highly regulated industries in North Dakota, is paying for tickets for the Super Bowl for not just our state’s top elected official, but also HIS WIFE.

Well isn’t that special. Y’know, there ought to be a law. Especially when it involves Xcel. The company has long been in a dispute with North Dakota regulators — read governors — over whether North Dakota customers should have to pay higher rates for electricity because Xcel is moving more of its power generation in Minnesota to higher cost renewable sources. The conflict has been in and out of court for many years, as well as the subject of discussion between Xcel and our regulators — read, the governor.

So Sunday, in a fancy suite overlooking the biggest sporting event of the year, Xcel executives are going to say “Now, now, Gov. Burgum, don’t you worry your pretty little head about those electricity rates. You don’t live in Fargo any more, you’re out in Bismarck, in MDU territory now, so it doesn’t affect you anymore. Here have some more champagne and cheer for your favorite team today. Wait! What? You’re cheering for the Eagles?”

I am reminded of the summer of 1991, when Tracy Potter and I were working for the North Dakota Tourism office, and our ad agency called and said they had two tickets for the U.S. Open Golf Tournament that was being played in Minneapolis, and they wanted us to use them. They knew Tracy and I were golf nuts and that we would really like to go to see all the famous golfers playing in the biggest golf tournament of the year in America.

Well, I was pretty nervous about taking them. So I called the attorney general, Nick Spaeth, and asked him if it was OK to do that. Nick said it was a bad idea. We could take them, he said, but we should pay for them, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Well, we did that. They weren’t cheap, but Tracy and I figured that opportunities like this don’t come along very often, so we splurged, paid the ad agency what they had paid for the tickets and went to the tournament. And we paid our own expenses. And we felt good about that, and we never regretted doing that.

(Aside — we were walking alongside one of the fairways and spotted none other than Nick Spaeth in one of the corporate booths, stocked with fine food and drinks. We never did ask Nick if he paid for his tickets, but I can guarantee you Tracy and I paid for our own beer and burgers.)

So this Sunday our governor is going to the Super Bowl, free, courtesy of one of the most highly regulated companies in North Dakota, and I’m guessing he’ll be sitting with the lobbyists who work the North Dakota Capitol on a regular basis. Damn, that looks bad. It looks cheap. It looks shady. I’m really disappointed in him. I mean, it’s not like he can’t afford to pay for his own tickets …

Oh, and by the way, the governor is throwing in some official business while he’s there — lunch with Minnesota’s governor, to discuss state-to-state business — so I wonder if the taxpayers of North Dakota will be picking up the expenses for the trip. And if he’ll be flying down there in the state-owned airplane, at state expense.

Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, by the way, paid for his own ticket to the Super Bowl, according to The Forum’s website. Dayton said he paid $6,000 for his ticket. (Don’t worry, he can afford them too.) So Xcel’s cost for Burgum’ tickets, and his wife’s, might be as much as $12,000. Plus chips and dip. And maybe some wings. And a beer or two. You can read the whole story here if you want to.

The initiated measure, which will be gathering signatures any day now, deals directly with this kind of thing. It reads, in part, “The ethics commission may …adopt ethics rules, including rules on disclosure, campaign finance, conflict of interest, lobbying, use of position, government contracts, gifts to public officials …”

So I guess if I was one of the sponsors of that petition drive to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission, I might now have a really good reason for why we need one. A $12,000 reason. With chips and dip. And wings.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What Will Happen To The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River?

Last summer, I wrote an article about a North Dakota Bad Lands rancher who built himself a big bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River on federal land without getting permission. I wrote then, last July, “The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need ‘permission slips …”

Well, I asked the federal land agent at the Bureau of Land Management office in Dickinson, N.D., about it. He promised to get back to me. When he did, it was with these succinct words: “We’ve got a situation here.”

Since then, Loren Wikstrom, the manager of the BLM’s North Dakota field office, and I have talked by phone, e-mailed and even snail-mailed a few times, and a couple weeks ago, I spent some time with him in his office. He’s pretty close to getting to the bottom of this “situation.” Here’s an update.

The rancher’s name is Wylie Bice. His ranch is a few thousand acres beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River in Dunn County, just west of the Killdeer Mountains, in western North Dakota. Bice made a fortune — $100 million or so — selling his oilfield trucking company before the bust hit the oil patch. I guess he really wanted to be a rancher instead of a trucker, so he used some of the money to buy the ranch adjacent to his, which happened to be on the other side of the river.

It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.
It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.

That ranch had a federal grazing lease on some BLM land. which just happened to be right up against the river, where Bice wanted to put his bridge. So he did.

And not only did he put a bridge there, but he built a road to get to it, and he built a couple of large water ponds for storing water for sale to the oil industry for fracking, and he also spilled his farming operations over onto that BLM land. All of that without telling the BLM, or asking permission. Yep, I’d say that qualified as a “situation.”

So the BLM dispatched one of its employees up to see Bice. They went out and stood beside the bridge and talked about it. And then the employee came back to the office and wrote up a report for his superiors. And the BLM began taking action.

What they did is, they opened up what they call a “trespass file.” I don’t think it is a criminal file, just a civil matter, but the BLM considers it a serious violation, because they told me the trespass file is closed to public inspection until it is resolved. They did, however, tell me what is going on.

First, they told Bice he had a bridge and a road on BLM land without a permit, and they sent him an application for a right-of-way permit, which would essentially grant him permission to build a bridge and a road on their land (never mind that both of them are already there). They told him to fill out the application and to send it back, along with the engineering plan for the bridge and the road, so they could see if it meets their specifications.

Once he’d done that, if everything was in order, they would consider giving him the missing permit for the bridge and the access road. I thought that was a pretty nice reaction. It’s a pretty expensive bridge, probably a million dollars worth or more. I’m sure Bice would not want to have to tear it down.

The BLM gave him until January 15, 2018 — a couple of weeks ago now — to submit his paperwork. When I met with Loren Wikstrom a couple days after that deadline, he thought he might be able to give me the paperwork to look at in early February. I’m going to take him up on that.

If they do decide to issue a permit, Bice is going to have to pay rent on the land that the bridge and the road are on, and there’s going to be an administrative fine. They haven’t told me what the fine is going to be.

Along with the application, the BLM is requiring him to send his plan to “reclaim” his water depot. That’s right. Bice built two big ponds — I mean really, really big — into which he pumps water from the Little Missouri, where it is stored until an oil company needs it for fracking. Then he sells it, and the oil company comes and hauls it away.

A number of Bad Lands ranchers are doing this right now, thanks to our North Dakota State Engineer’s office, which issued more than 600 illegal water permits in the last few years to help out the oil industry. I wrote about that here last year. Seems like North Dakota’s state government is a lot more willing to just look the other way to help the oil industry than the federal government is.

It turns out that part of Bice’s water depot is also on BLM land, and the BLM isn’t going to allow that, so he has to remove the ponds and reclaim that land. The BLM also is going to charge him back rent on that land and fine him for putting that water depot on their land.

Bice also started a farming operation on that side of the river, although I don’t know what he planted. But part of what he planted was on BLM land. The BLM didn’t like that at all. It’s probably going to fine him for that as well and make him reclaim that land.

The BLM told me in a letter dated December 7, 2017, “BLM will oversee application of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws in considering the proposed right-of-way.”

The BLM guys went on to say that Bice “remains responsible for all applicable fines and back rent during the application processing period. In the event a right-of-way is granted, all fines and rent must be paid before issuance of right-of-way. Should the right-of-way be denied, the bridge, access road and other developments must be removed and the sites fully reclaimed to their original state at the expense of the responsible party (Bice).”

Well. Sounds like the BLM means business.

Then there’s another consideration. When someone wants to build something on federal land, especially in areas near Indian reservations, that darned old Historic Preservation Act comes into play. The BLM guys told me they never did get archeologists out there to do a cultural survey. That will likely have to take place once they get a completed application from Bice. The worst-case scenario, they told me, is “if they were to find artifacts or stone circles in the vicinity. That would be bad.”

I’m not sure exactly what “that would be bad” means, but I suppose it could mean denial of the right-of-way, and/or additional fines for violation of the Historic Preservation Act. The law is pretty clear on things like that, I suspect. I’m not going to look it up. I’ll let them tell me if that’s the case.

The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.
The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.

I don’t know if Bice is going to peaceably go in there and rip out the plastic liner in his pits, bulldoze them back to level ground, plant grass for the critters, pay his fines for trespassing, catch up on his back rent for the road and the pits and the bridge and the farming operation, or if he’s going to resist and set up another Cliven Bundy standoff situation. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

I did ask the BLM what happens if Bice doesn’t cooperate. The BLM’s response: “The BLM first tries to work with the responsible party in resolving trespasses amicably. However, if a trespasser is uncooperative, applicable civil or criminal measures may be pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Uh-oh. As we saw in the case of Jason Halek, the fellow who violated the U. S. Safe Drinking Water Act by dumping 800,000 gallons of saltwater down an abandoned oil well near Dickinson, which I wrote about here a few months ago, the U.S. Attorney in North Dakota doesn’t take these things lightly. So that’s when the lawyers get involved. Bice has plenty of money for lawyers. And things can drag on for years.

I also learned this week that Bice has obtained two new industrial water permits (one issued just last week) to pump water from the Little Missouri into his water pits. (You can look at them here and here if you want to.) Nothing surprising there. The water’s free, and the State Water Commission engineers love giving it away. They did place some restrictions on the permits, pretty standard stuff, such as taking precautions to minimize the visual and audible disruption to the scenic Little Missouri River valley, by keeping the shorelines in and around intake locations free of construction debris and litter, keeping pumps and motors sheltered from view of canoeists, setting pumps and motors away from the shoreline to make sure gas and oil leaks don’t get into the river, and putting mufflers on internal combustion motors “to maintain the tranquility and ambiance and minimize audible disruption of the scenic river experience.”

Uh, huh. We’ll see how that’s going when I canoe through there this spring (which I am surely going to do). I’ll also see if his scrapers and bulldozers have completed the job of getting rid of those big water pits on land you and I and the rest of the people of the United States own, and if Bice has planted some grass and a few cottonwoods alongside the river. I get the feeling the bridge will still be there. For a long time. I’ll let you know what I find.

Meanwhile, if you want to have a look for yourself, I can tell you the legal address is the West half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West.

That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land – owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing once you get about halfway across the river.

As I wrote last summer: “Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.”

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Politics Of Self-Preservation

It will be interesting to see if the president can hold together The Party of Capitulation after Roy Moore’s defeat.

Divide and conquer. That’s how you keep your job with a 32 percent approval rating. That and fear. Republicans saw what happened to Jeff Flake. It’s more than party over people. It’s about self-preservation.

There are three subfactors in play — cluelessness, cowardice and political cynicism. We know U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer is a candidate to head the Ministry of Suck Ups, while U.S. Sen. John Hoeven remains in a fetal position under his desk. Really, that tax bill is good for North Dakotans? Really?

Gov. Doug Burgum saw which direction the wind was blowing last summer — down toward Hades — but endorsed Trump, anyway. I’d like to believe he was at least holding his nose. Here’s the thing about wetting your finger in the breeze — reinventing leadership requires bucking some headwinds.

The bully pulpit was invented here. You guys might want to look into that. Running with the herd ain’t leadership. You just step in a lot of cow pies. If Roy Moore’s defeat is any indication, the herd is starting to turn.

It’s unlikely Trump has the brainpower to calculate this strategy of division. He may just be a natural destroyer of worlds. An idiot savant with a black heart.

However, the Democratic “strategy” of “We’re Not Trump” isn’t inspirational, either. It may lead to gains in the midterms, but a coherent, less hypocritical message — like not giving $250,000 speeches on Wall Street — would do wonders. It’s the economy (of average Americans), stupid.

So far, Republicans have secured the tax bill and a transfer of more wealth from the middle to the top. You on the bottom? Sorry, your name didn’t come up. Please stop spending your money on booze, women and movies. You’ll need it for ramen. The self-induced deficits will be an excuse for gutting the social safety net.

Republicans, who are also held hostage by evangelicals, will cynically try to stick with President Machiavelli until they get a justice to overturn Roe v. Wade and put women firmly back in their places as second-class citizens — third-class if you’re a woman of color.

A good war could keep everyone distracted for a while. By then, the overheated stock market will have tanked; big banks will get bailed out again, but not mortgage holders. Bootstraps, people!

After that, Democrats will win more elections but will be rewarded with a big pile of dung. Then, as they did after Dubya, Republicans will induce mass amnesia and blame the mess on liberal policies. Demagogues will continue to tell white working-class families that they are paying to support a bunch of slacker minorities, while their pockets are being picked (again) for corporate welfare.

At least Trump will be safe from the estate tax. And we’re just fine with him monetizing the White House, even as he is neutered internationally by Russian blackmail.

State Media (Fox News) is building a case to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. If it happens, will the Republican majority finally do the right thing and defend democracy? Please.

You want to make big moral strides in America? Make this a drinking game. When Republicans do the right thing, you drink a shot. It will be drier than Prohibition. Jagermeister will be belly up by next Thursday.

Oh, and if you mention any of this, it’s fake news. Another proven tactic. Kill the messenger. Who needs objective journalists when we have stooges to tell us things we like to hear and remind us how enlightened our biases are? Please appeal to my uninformed vanity. Critical thinking is for losers.

Wanna fix it, people? Vote. Get out the vote. It works. See Alabama.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Hurricane Donald

A big wind made landfall last Wednesday in North Dakota, and when I woke up the next morning, North Dakota was great again.

A KX News morning show anchor giddily recounted her excitement about President Trump’s visit and how she and her family had gone out to “show our love for the president.” I was a little surprised her objective report didn’t include the phrase “glorious leader.”

Perhaps I woke up in North Korea. I missed it, did anyone kiss his ring?

Not everyone was happy about the president’s invitation-only visit to a refinery in Mandan. I know I’m part of the Fake News and Liberal Agenda that Rush Limbaugh blames for overhyping Hurricane Irma just to make a point about climate change, but it is a statistical fact 41 percent of North Dakotans don’t support the president.

Eleven percent of them have actually been groped by him. The other 30 percent have been goosed by Limbaugh.

This may explain why folks are increasingly desperate for medical marijuana to get here. “Please help us forget.” Anyway, don’t tell me the president’s not on something. He must be smoking covfefe during those 3 a.m. tweet sessions from the bathroom.

We should legalize covfefe, too, once we figure out what it is. The downside of building The Wall is we’ll no longer have easy access to covfefe pouring across our borders from Mexico. But we’ll have jobs picking tomatoes, if we’re not too busy mining coal, the energy of the future.

Once we get rid of people who are different from us, things will be grand. I think a raid at Norsk Hostfest would be a good start. And, yes, Jethro, we’ll call you for that Google programming gig once we send Ravi back to New Delhi.

And did you hear? A Dickinson company is in the running to build a prototype for The Wall. I hope they’re better at it than the folks in my neck of the woods. Every time I drive to Lehr, there are cows on the road. We need better fences. Or more-obedient cattle.

Naturally, there were protesters and counter-protesters in Mandan. You could tell them apart based on the spelling errors. I don’t think racists should be against “Muslins.” What would they do without sheets?

Noted white supremacist Craig Cobb was there to show his support for the president. David Duke couldn’t make it because he was rallying support to defend statues of Colonel Sanders, Ashley Wilkes, The Dukes of Hazzard and Foghorn Leghorn.

Some of the president’s supporters yelled at Trump protesters to get a job. Silly. Everyone knows liberal protesters work for George Soros. I personally feel he should get more credit as a job creator.

Meanwhile, the Trump supporters were apparently multitasking, working, while supporting the president. That’s the sort of gumption that made America great before Obama made it un-great. To be fair, he did make Kenya great again.

Pretty much everyone was mad about Sen. Heidi Heitkamp riding on Air Force One with President Trump. Liberals already think she’s too far right. Republicans don’t think she has enough deferments to even qualify for high office. Kevin Cramer was especially displeased. Not only did Heidi get the window seat, she made him go to the galley three times for salted almonds. You know how Leftists are when it comes to free stuff. They’re always pulling themselves up by other people’s bootstraps. Then, to top it off, the president actually said nice things about Heidi when he spoke because he wants her to vote for tax breaks for the rich, to help out the poor.

North Dakota is a shining example of giving tax breaks to rich guys. That has taken the pressure from North Dakota property owners, who are more than happy to absorb the cost of tax breaks for Big Oil. Because having too much disposable income can get downright confusing.

I mean where do you invest — Wall Street or Russia? The easy answer is always invest in tax breaks for billionaires.

This time, it’s sure to trickle down. I’ll bet oil typhoon Harold Hamm, who thanks to North Dakota Republicans, could finally afford to fly in from Oklahoma to greet the president, threw dollar bills out the window of his Lear Jet.

Technically, that could result in a $500 fine under stiff new littering penalties passed by Republicans to protect the environment. However, if you spill a few thousand barrels of oil in North Dakota, all you have to do is write, “I was a bad boy,” a 100 times on the blackboard. You have to ease into these things.

I’m not saying we’re easy, but all the light bulbs in Bismarck are being swapped out with red ones. It’ll be purdy at Christmas.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Bully For Billy

If you didn’t like Billy Kretschmar, the fault was not his.

Billy was a fixture in the North Dakota House of Representatives from 1974 to 2016, with one lost election in between, and during that time, most politicians would have developed fierce enemies.

If Billy had them, I don’t know who they are. When I deconstructed his career in a February feature story, I couldn’t find anyone who had a bad thing to say about him. I tried.

I knew Billy almost 20 years before he died Thursday at 83. He’d told a close friend that no Kretschmar man had ever lived to 84. That was Billy, a traditionalist. But the first word that leaps to mind when I think of William Edward Kretschmar is “gentleman.”

Billy had been in poor health in recent months, so we should have been prepared. But I don’t suppose anyone was. I got the news just before I headed out on a road trip. My eyes were a bit blurry for the first stretch. I started searching my memory, wondering if I had ever before shed a tear for any politician. I don’t think so.

Although Billy was a Republican, and I was not, I only took him to task for two votes over the years. One of those discussions caused the normally unflappable Billy Kretschmar to become flapped.

It was a pro-life bill I found ill-conceived. As was his nature, Billy listened — really listened — and, in any other case, he would have gently, respectfully, and concisely explained his reasoning.

This time, he just took the barrage. Finally, he grew exasperated, throwing up his hands, saying, “I’m Catholic!” and walked away. You know, I had to respect that.

As a legislator, Billy was what has become an almost extinct species, a moderate, willing and able to work with members of both parties. His votes were reasoned, not ideological. Billy did what he thought was right, and most of the time, I think he got it right. After sessions, he’d hold court at a Bismarck watering hole with members of both parties, something they called “The Billy Club.”

If anyone ever accumulated more institutional knowledge and history of the North Dakota Legislature, I don’t know who it is. If there was a question about procedure, or if a bill needed background and context, Billy Kretchshmar knew.

Bruce Eckre, a former legislator, said, “The history of the Legislature is not in the history books. They say when a person dies, a whole history book goes with them. In Kretch’s case; it was many books.”

Mostly, I knew Billy as a friend. He was a neighbor, a resident of Venturia, N.D., population 10, so if you consider the mayor and other city officers, most Venturians are politicians. There’s a minister and a bartender, too, because with that percentage of politicians, you need therapy of one kind or another.

Billy, who loved, loved, loved to gamble, was a stalwart member of the Ashley Fantasy Football League, but not a particularly well-prepared one. One recent year, during the draft, as Billy fumbled around, I cracked, “Billy, why don’t you just write me a check now, and let’s get this over with.” In spite of Billy’s unorthodox draft picks, one year he won the league trophy, and that still makes me smile.

One of the charms of life on Main Street in Ashley, is that it’s personal. Fellow merchants still walk through each other’s doors at the end of the month delivering payments personally (and it saves a stamp).

Sure, we use more email these days, but with Billy, you couldn’t do that. At the Legislature, his inbox was ignored, and his computer mostly a paperweight. Yes, he had a cell phone, but it was maddeningly used for outgoing calls only, so you had to catch him in person.

If it was coffee break, you’d find Bily at the cafe with a long table of retirees, gambling to see who picked up the tab. When the cafe, which has been closed until new owners take over, re-opens, I hope they leave Billy’s chair vacant for awhile.

I’m writing this on the day of the eclipse. I could draw some analogy, but I know Billy wouldn’t want that. I will tell you he would have been 84 today.

I have this image of Billy arriving at the pearly gates, humbly, genteel, but with a twinkle in his eye, as he meets St. Peter.

“Double or nothing?” I imagine him saying.

© Tony Bender, 2017

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Ben Hanson For Congress: A Good Idea

So it begins. North Dakota has its first official candidate in the 2018 election. Given all the weird shit (read: Trump) that’s been going on over the past eight months or so, I’m eager for a fresh start, and my young friend, Ben Hanson, has provided that. Thank you, Ben.

Ben sent me an e-mail shortly after midnight last night announcing he is running for Congress, to represent the great state of North Dakota in Washington, DC. I hope he wins.

He’s running against another friend of mine, Kevin Cramer (who I used to vote for until he went crazy on me in this Trump thing), if he gets the endorsement of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party next spring. To do that, he may have to sneak past a couple of other Democrats who are said to be considering the race, former State Senator Mac Schneider and current State Senator Merrill Piepkorn.

Both are better known across the state, Schneider, the former Senate Minority Leader and Grand Forks attorney who was ousted from his District 42 State Senate seat last November, and Piepkorn, the longtime voice on Prairie Public Radio, who won his first race for the State Senate in the same election in Fargo’s District 44. Neither has announced, but if they do, it will be a healthy thing for the Democrats.

I can see them traveling around the state together seeking the party endorsement, like the four Democrats — George Sinner, Art Link, Buckshot Hoffner and Walt Hjelle — did in the run-up to the 1984 Democratic-NPL convention. That was good for the party, and the attention it got helped Sinner defeat incumbent Allen Olson in the November election that year.

I really like Hanson (no relation to Bob Hanson, the former Democratic-NPL state officeholder) and will support him in his efforts to get the nomination, despite my friendship with Schneider and Piepkorn.

I first met him in 2006, when he was a teenager getting involved in Democratic-NPL Party politics. He was making a video about Art and Grace Link, and I think we showed it at the State Democratic-NPL Convention. I could see he had an intense interest in politics, even as a young college student.

He went on to get his college degree and become a real estate broker. He got involved in his local district party and got himself elected to the state Legislature from Fargo’s District 16, where he served two sessions before losing a re-election effort last year. He quickly got involved in leadership in the Legislature, becoming his party’s House Caucus Co-Chair, and he called me from time to time to get together and talk strategy for the future of the party and the state.

He called last spring, and we sat and drank a beer, and he said he thought he’d like to run for Congres, and asked me what I thought. I said, “Go!” in the strongest possible terms. I like his ideas about our state, his political knowledge despite only being 30 years old and his belief that people should be involved in politics for the future of the state, not the future of the candidate. Whether or not he becomes our state’s congressman, he’ll be around in leadership roles for a long time.

It’s heartening to see young people like Hanson getting involved in politics and government at this level. I hope he becomes our congressman. Here’s what he had to say in his announcement e-mail:

BEN HANSON ANNOUNCES BID FOR CONGRESS

Vows to fight for North Dakota families, create good middle-class jobs & grow North Dakota’s economy

(FARGO, ND) — Lifelong North Dakotan Ben Hanson announced today his intention to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in the United States House of Representatives. Hanson released the following statement:

“I’m excited to be running to become North Dakota’s next Congressman because I love North Dakota. I was born here, raised here, and my family has farmed North Dakota ground for generations. They taught me North Dakota values like hard work, dedication and looking out for your neighbor. These values have guided me this far in life and just as I have lived by them I will run by them.”

“I’m running because I believe that North Dakota deserves a congressman who will focus on the needs of hard-working North Dakotans — creating good paying jobs for working families, strengthening the middle class, and building an economy that works for everyone. Over the course of my campaign, I will focus on boosting job growth and jumpstarting our economy by investing in small businesses, an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and rebuilding our infrastructure.”

“North Dakota needs an advocate in Washington to help solve problems and navigate its complexities. Unfortunately, Kevin Cramer has lost focus on issues that matter to North Dakotans and instead has become part of the mess that is Washington, D.C. Together we can move forward — with an eye toward bringing North Dakota values and work-ethic to the halls of Congress. I look forward to the privilege of representing the people of North Dakota and earning your support.”

  • Kenton Onstad, Former House Minority Leader, Parshall School Board Member: “Ben not only understands the complexities and the dynamics of Western North Dakota but the entire state of North Dakota. He would represent all of the citizens of our state. Young or old, male or female, those fortunate or less fortunate, Ben would be proud to represent you, as you would be of him.”
  • North Dakota State Senator Tim Mathern: “I’m excited to see Ben Hanson enter the race, as well as this new leadership for our state, and a rebirth of the party. As an added bonus Ben Hanson’s roots are deep across North Dakota, from Crosby to the Red River Valley. We will all benefit with Ben Hanson in Congress.”

About Ben Hanson:

With family from Crosby to Casselton, Ben Hanson is a lifelong North Dakotan with deep roots in this community. Ben grew up in the Red River Valley, attending Fargo South High School, and he is a graduate of Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

As a North Dakota state representative, Ben was focused on making North Dakota a leader in creating good-paying technology jobs and making state government more transparent.

Ben currently works as a commercial broker for Archer Real Estate Services and lives in Fargo.