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Plain Talk With Rob Port

Plain Talk is a podcast hosted by blogger and columnist Rob Port focusing on political news and current events in North Dakota. Host Rob Port writes SayAnythingBlog.com, North Dakota’s most popular and influential political blog, and is a columnist for the Forum News Service published in papers including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Minot Daily News, and the Dickinson Press.

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Latest Episodes
368: A local candidate sounds off, and Cramer talks Jan. 6 texts
Fri Sep 30 13:17:58 EDT 2022
In North Dakota, we elect a lot of people. That's not a bad thing, but sometimes once you get down to the bottom of your ballot, past higher-profile candidates for state and federal office, you begin to see some names you might not be very familiar with.

Names that are often all alone in their races, representing candidates are facing no opposition.

One of those names this cycle is Ben Hanson. He's a former state lawmaker, and a Democrat, though he's now seeking a non-partisan office on the Cass County Commisison. He is facing some opposition - former Republican state Senator Tony Grindberg is running against him - but he has an interesting story to tell about the struggle to get the public interested local races.

It's a paradox, given popular ideas like "local control" are. Local officials handle policy and appropriations that intersect with many of the electorate's top priorities - from the economy and jobs to mental health and crime - yet these races are often not competitive and overlooked.

Also on this episode, Sen. Kevin Cramer joined to talk about the recent headlines over text messages sent to him about the 2020 election from current Attorney General, and then U.S. Attorney, Drew Wrigley. He also talked about the Senate passing a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, the importance of permitting reform here in America in the context of Russia using its energy market share to bully the rest of the world, and the financial industry's efforts to try and track gun purchases.

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367: Sec. of State candidates debate election integrity, voting, and transparency
Wed Sep 28 10:25:58 EDT 2022
Election integrity is a hot-button issue. Rancor continues around the outcome of the 2020 election, with many claiming that, at least nationally, former President Donald Trump was cheated out of another term in the White House by fraud. North Dakota election officials have been flooded with open records requests from people seeking information to prove conspiracy theories about the election.

As it happens, North Dakota's top election official is on the ballot this cycle. Long-serving incumbent Republican Al Jaeger isn't running for another seat. State Rep. Michael Howe, a Republican, and Mayville State University administration Jeffrey Powell, a Democrat, are running to replace him. They joined this episode of Plain Talk for a debate about the issues in this campaign, along with my co-host, former Democratic-NPL executive director Chad Oban.

An independent candidate, Charles Tuttle, has filed signatures to be on the ballot in this race. I made the decision not to include him in this discussion because it's my feeling, given his long history of erratic behavior, and the probability that he'll draw a very low number of votes, his participation wouldn't have been a productive use of our time.

"We haven't seen any problems with the integrity of our elections" in North Dakota, Howe said during the debate, though he said that whoever wins this election needs to "gain the public's trust back."

"People get caught up in the cable news cycle. They see things that aren't related to North Dakota," Howe added.

Powell agreed though he pressed Howe on the fact that much of the questioning of election outcomes is coming from the right. Howe responded by pointing out that Democrats have questioned election results in the past as well.

Both candidates agreed that many aspects of the Secretary of State's online services - from accessing campaign finance reports to making business filings - need to be modernized and made more user-friendly. Powell said that while much of the information on things like voting and running for office on the Secretary of State's website currently was accurate, it's presented in an out-dated way.

Asked if they would support more rigorous reporting requirements for candidates, Powell said he would require that candidates leverage online tools to make reports almost real-time. "I want it to be live and accurate," he said. Howe was more non-committal. "I don't know if it's going to solve any problems or if we're going to glean any new information, but sure," he said.

The candidates also discussed what it's like to campaign in a very angry, divided political environment, the controversy over a term limits ballot measure that was dismissed from the ballot by the incumbent before being restored by the state Supreme Court, and some of the Secretary of State's other duties, such as serving on the Land Board and the Emergency Commission.

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366: Are term limits really what's right for North Dakota?
Fri Sep 23 12:08:34 EDT 2022
Minot, N.D. — It's been a circuitous route to the ballot for a ballot measure implementing term limits for North Dakota's lawmakers and governor. State officials maintain that the signature collection process behind it was riddled with fraud, but the state Supreme Court put it on the ballot on a legal technicality, finding that the Secretary of State lacked the authority to disqualify it.

However you or I might feel about how the measure got there, North Dakota's voters will be confronted with a decision about it.

Should lawmakers be limited to no more than eight years in a legislative chamber?

Should the governor be prohibited from running for more than two four-year terms?

Does limiting the amount of time lawmakers can serve create a disparity in balance of power between branches of the state government?

And why shouldn't voters get to keep voting for the same candidates over and over again if that's what they really want?

We talked about those questions and more on this episode of Plain Talk.

Mike Motschenbacher and Dustin Gawrylow, two long-time conservative activists in state politics (the former is currently campaigning for a seat in the state House in District 47 as a Republican), joined to discuss the issue.

Gawrylow is for term limits, while Motschenbacher, like me, is against.

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365: Democratic-NPL ag commissioner candidate says vote for the Republican
Wed Sep 21 12:49:31 EDT 2022
Work around politics long enough, and you'll hear everything. Including a Democratic candidate for statewide office saying you ought to vote for the Republican.

Fintan Dooley, who was endorsed by the North Dakota Democratic-NPL this spring to take on three-term Republican incumbent Doug Goehring for Agriculture Commissioner, says you ought to vote for the incumbent.

"I'm not smoking any pot," Dooley said on this episode of Plain Talk, which featured a debate between the two candidates. "He's actually accomplished what he says he's accomplished," adding that he's even gotten permission from Goehring to hunt on his land.

But that's not to say that the candidates don't have areas of disagreement. Dooley, who has worked as an attorney in North Dakota since 1976, has been a passionate activist for lands impacted by oil and gas development, including so-called "salted lands" that have been harmed by brine spills.

Goehring argued that the spills happened in the past, under old EPA regulations that were predicated on now-outdated science, but Dooley rejected that argument, saying the state has to do a better job of protecting the land going forward, restoring land already harmed.

But in many other areas, the two candidates were very much in alignment. Goehring weighed on the controversial sale of farm land to tech industry billionaire Bill Gates, saying he understands some of the consternation given Gates' sometimes hostile attitudes toward production agriculture, but that ultimately private land owners have a the right to sell to who they wish.

Goehring says the bigger problem is the number of North Dakota landowners who are selling out to out-of-state buyers who only want to use that land for recreation and take it out of agriculture industry entirely, something Dooley agreed with.

Both candidates want North Dakota's corporate farming ban rolled back. At least for animal agriculture. Dooley said he's aware of family-owned dairy operations that may have to close down because the latest generation of the family isn't interested in the business, and it's illegal to bring in outsiders. "They should be able to incorporate" and get investment from non-family members, Dooley said.

Both are skeptical of high-profile efforts to bring carbon capture and sequestration to the state.

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364: Gov. Burgum says baby boom is driving North Dakota's child care problems
Fri Sep 16 10:40:50 EDT 2022
When I began my writing career twenty years ago, North Dakota had an aging, shrinking population. Our young people were leaving. New people weren't moving here. When we debated education, much of it was focused on what to do about declining enrollment.

School closures and consolidation were a sad reality.

Things have improved. Where once our state was among the oldest in the nation, it now consistently ranks among the youngest (our media age of 35.2 years is good for fourth youngest, currently).

But there are challenges associated with that turnaround, and among them is how to ensure that North Dakota's child care businesses can keep up with demand for their services.

Governor Doug Burgum, who along with a coalition of other state leaders recently announced a policy package to address that issue, spoke about the conundrum on this episode of Plain Talk.

Here's one mind-blowing statistic he shared: Of North Dakota's more than 760,000 residents, more than 64,000 are age 5 and under. These children live in more than 42,000 North Dakota households.

The high cost, and slim availability, of child care is impacting an enormous chunk of our population.

Burgum talked about the need for the state, and the private sector, to step in to help child care businesses start and stay open, to help child care workers find good careers in their industry, and to help North Dakota families pay for childcare services.

And this isn't just about helping families with kids. It's about helping North Dakota's entire economy, Burgum says. "We have a trained workforce in North Dakota that we've invested in over their lifetime...and they have to stay home" to take care of kids, he argued.

Freeing those workers up by making child care accessible can also help address North Dakota's workforce shortages.

What challenges does the governor see in getting this policy passed? He noted that many of North Dakota's elected leaders are from a generation that may not understand that this is a problem.

"The state's average age is 35," he said. "That is not the average age of the Legislature."

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363: Attorney General candidates clash over crime, marijuana, and more
Wed Sep 14 13:52:46 EDT 2022
If there's one thing we learned from the first debate between North Dakota's candidates for attorney general, it's that they disagree on a lot.

Drew Wrigley, a Republican, is the incumbent attorney general, having been appointed to finish his predecessor Wayne Stenehjem's term by Governor Doug Burgum. Wrigley is now running to be elected to a term of his own, and he's being challenged by Democratic-NPL candidate Tim Lamb.

One area where the candidates disagree sharply is on crime. Wrigley's office released the most recent iteration of the state's crime report. It illustrated a 10 percent year-over-year increase in violent crime, and a 20 percent increase since 2017. Wrigley says that's significant and invites a response in the form of tougher penalties for violent crimes, tempered with perhaps a lighter touch for non-violent offense.

Lamb disagrees with Wrigley that the state has a crime problem.

Lamb, meanwhile, is for a measure on the November ballot that would legalize recreational marijuana. Wrigley, for his part, wouldn't say how he'll vote on the measure, but said from a personal perspective that using marijuana is "not healthy." Whether voters pass the measure or not, Wrigley says "we will have issues going forward" with how to handle marijuana in the criminal justice system.

The two candidates also were at loggerheads over the handling of the deletion of official state email accounts for Stenehjem, after his death, and former deputy Attorney General Troy Seibel, after his departure from the office. Wrigley said the deletions, ordered by Stenehjem's former executive assistant, were wrong, but didn't rise to the level of a crime. Lamb disagreed, saying they did.

Lamb also accused North Dakota's Industrial Commission of mishandling monetary penalties levied against oil industry companies involved in spills. Wrigley accused Lamb of a "false and slanderous statement."

The two candidates did agree in one area. Wrigley said that he has no interest in his office enforcing penalties against educators for teaching critical race theory, despite the comments of state Rep. Jim Kasper, a Republican from Fargo, at a recent Department of Public Instruction meeting. Lamb, a long-time member of the Grand Forks School Board, largely agreed with Wrigley's sentiments.

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362: Cramer talks Russia, student loan forgiveness, Mund, and Becker
Fri Sep 09 13:37:05 EDT 2022
Prominent North Dakota Democrats made a real "mess of things" when they took the extraordinary step of jettisoning their U.S. House candidate, Mark Haugen, in favor of independent candidate Cara Mund.

"They were very presumptuous about Cara," Cramer added, arguing that they don't know much about her outside of her views on abortion. He also argued that the move may inhibit future efforts to recruit candidates to the Democratic-NPL ticket.

"Now all they have to offer is disloyalty," Cramer said.

Mund's entrance into North Dakota's U.S. House race against incumbent Republican Kelly Armstrong was just one topic Cramer and I covered on this episode of Plain Talk.

We also discussed another independent candidate, Rick Becker, who is challenging incumbent John Hoeven, Cramer's colleague in the Senate. Cramer praised Becker as representing an important part of the NDGOP, but took a dim view of his chances. "I don't think he's going to do as well as he thinks he does," Cramer said.

Becker had promised to respect the vote of delegates at the NDGOP convention, where Hoeven won the party's endorsement, but has gone back on that promise to challenge Hoeven in the general election. Cramer said that move has hurt Becker. "I've talked to a number of Republican supporters of Rick Becker and they're disappointed," he said.

Cramer also spoke about getting banned by the Russian government, the European energy crisis brought on in no small part by the war in Ukraine and what Americans can do to help, President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness.

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361: Cara Mund, Rep. Kelly Armstrong square off in first U.S. House debate
Wed Sep 07 12:17:58 EDT 2022
For the first time, incumbent Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong and independent challenge Cara Mund faced off in a debate.

On this episode of Plain Talk, with questions coming from former Democratic-NPL executive director Chad Oban and myself, the two candidates found areas where they agree, and areas where they disagree.

Both Armstrong and Mund oppose President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness. They also seem to be generally on the same page on energy, outside of Mund's criticism of the Trump-era decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord.

In other areas, the two candidates are quite different. Mund was sharply critical of former President Donald Trump, while Armstrong said he'd put Trump in the White House again if the choice were between him and current President Joe Biden. Abortion was also a flashpoint between the candidates. Mund argues that the U.S. Supreme Court, by overturning legal precedent that had been in place for five decades, had taken away an important right from women.

Mund also answered questions about her ideology. Asked which party she would caucus with should she be elected to Congress, she said she had initially thought she's caucus with Republicans but that now, "I don't think I have a choice," referring to an NDGOP rule which prohibits candidates who have run as independents from seeking the party's endorsement for six years.

She also defended her independence - under admittedly sharp questioning from me - despite the Democratic-NPL taking the extraordinary step of pushing their House candidate out of the race.

What voters are left with, after this first debate, is a view of two candidates who differ profoundly on some of the stormiest issues in politics.

This was the second in a series of Plain Talk debates between North Dakota's statewide candidates. To be notified of new episodes, including the future debates, subscribe, for free, on the podcasting platform of your choice.

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360: Candidate conversation with Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak
Wed Aug 31 12:23:00 EDT 2022
What does the Public Service Commission do in North Dakota?

The PSC makes the most headlines over utility rates. They regulate how much utilities can charge us for our power. But the PSC does so much more. They site wind farms. They run a rail safety program. They make sure that the pumps and the scales that measure how much we pay for everything from gasoline to steaks at the butcher shop are fair.

Julie Fedorchak, a Republican, has served on the PSC since she was appointed by former Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2012. She had that appointment confirmed by voters in 2014, and successfully ran for a six-year term in 2016. She's now up for re-election, and joined this episode of Plain Talk for a wide-ranging conversation about her campaign.

This is part of a series of hosted conversations we'll be doing on Plain Talk with all of the statewide candidates. Fedorchak's opponent in this race, Democratic-NPL candidate Melanie Moniz, declined to participate.

Also on this episode, Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I talk about the controversy around President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness program, and independent candidate Cara Mund's event with Democrats.

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359: Under this proposal, most in North Dakota wouldn't pay income tax
Mon Aug 29 12:09:24 EDT 2022
Last week a group of Republican leaders from the state's legislative and executive branches got together and announced a new plan to flatten North Dakota's income taxes.

The state currently has five tax brackets that obligate every North Dakotan earning income to pay a progressively higher rate based on how large that income is.

This new plan would create just two tax brackets, with about 60 percent of North Dakota households paying no income tax at all, and the rest paying a flat rate of just 1.5 percent.

Would those paying no tax still have to file a return?

How would the state adjust its revenues and spending to account for this tax cut?

What of claims from Democratic leaders that this is just another handout for the wealthy?

Republican Tax Commissioner Brian Kroshus, and state Rep. Craig Headland, a Republican from Montpelier, joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss.

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