GRAND FORKS — From campaigns to conventions to elections themselves, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to pile up against the political system.
Local evidence came Sunday, when the Herald reported that Grand Forks mayoral candidate Robin David has taken to the internet, creating forums for interested voters. This is meant to replace campaign rallies and door-to-door voter contacts. It also avoids a staple of modern campaigns, face-to-face debates. The trouble is, one of the rules of politics is that those who care the least have the most impact and are the hardest to reach — even in ordinary times.
A more urgent example comes from state party decisions to change or even cancel their conventions. Democrats chose the first course, holding a digital convention. This probably has little immediate consequence because Democrats are largely out of the running in North Dakota. Republicans canceled their convention, opting instead to let voters decide in the primary election who should get the party’s nomination for statewide offices. The primary is set for June 9, at this point. This decision may be more consequential. It could further weaken the party organization, accelerating a trend that heretofore has been limited mostly to top-of-the-ticket offices, including U.S. representative in 2012 and governor in 2016. Both of these were individual challenges to the party regulars, and both challenges succeeded. This year, these primary contests have grown from a few isolated legislative districts in 2018 to a marked trend in both legislative and statewide contests.
Social distancing may wreak havoc with petitions campaigns. Three involve major changes to the constitution.
The first would grant the state Supreme Court original jurisdiction over any law proposing to limit the state’s well-developed direct democracy, which permits voters to initiate constitutional amendments as well as new laws, to refer laws passed by the Legislature and to recall elected officials. The measure would strengthen these provisions by keeping the lawmakers’ hands off for at least seven years. The sponsoring committee includes usual suspects from both ends of the political spectrum.
Other petitions have been presented to the secretary of state for review but have not yet been approved for circulation. These also could be consequential. One would put the Ethics Commission, created by initiative in 2018, in charge of legislative re-apportionment. The other would eliminate property taxes. The deadline for these petitions is 120 days before the November election. That date is Monday, July 6. The pandemic may make those deadlines very difficult to meet, since presenting petitions door-to-door seems out of the questions. The venues that a political year ordinarily presents — state conventions — have been scrapped. And the deadline is ahead of the state fair, often a fertile ground for petition circulators.
For the reapportionment petitions, this consequence is long lasting, since a mechanism for redrawing legislative districts must be in place next year, when results of the 2020 census are available. If the proposed amendment doesn’t reach the ballot (or if it is rejected there) the Legislature would draw its own legislative district lines through the next decade.
The economic situation brought on by the pandemic makes the idea of eliminating property taxes less appealing than it might otherwise be, since other sources of revenue will be hard hit. Oil taxes will be down because the price has dropped precipitously. North Dakota taxes oil at a percentage of its price. Lower prices mean smaller revenues. The oil industry generates a large percentage of the state’s sales tax revenues, too, because many industry inputs are taxed. Oil workers are taxed on their incomes and on their purchases, through the income tax (one of the lowest in the nation) and the state sales tax, which generates the largest share of general fund revenues, since so much of the oil tax money is directed to special funds.
But the most consequential impact is on local revenues, which have been driven largely by taxes on local property. The funds would have to be replaced, in order to maintain local roads and law enforcement, among other services. This would mean approaching lawmakers for local projects, amounting to what might be the greatest centralization of power in state government in North Dakota history. This is meant as a reality check, not an endorsement of property taxes, the least fair and ultimately most burdensome of taxes levied in North Dakota.
Finally, there’s the messaging about coronavirus. The pandemic has propelled Gov. Doug Burgum onto television screens almost every day, and he’s made a good impression. Burgum projects confidence. He appears calm. He’s data-driven. He’s not accusatory. He’s not self-serving. And he’s reassuring. It’s been a boffo performance – quite a contrast, really, to the one broadcast from the White House every day. The president is often accusatory and always self-congratulatory.
And he never lets science stand in the way of a good sound bite.
As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.