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ND Republicans pick Senate, House leaders, speaker

By Dale Wetzel

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 15 2010 10:30 p.m. MST

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakotans want property tax relief and a slowdown in recent steep spending growth, according to two key Republicans in the state Legislature who were re-elected Monday to their leadership jobs.

Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate's majority leader, and his House counterpart, Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, were chosen for new two-year terms in their leadership posts. Both men were unopposed.

Among Republican lawmakers, the only contested position was a three-way race for House speaker, won by Rep. David "Skip" Drovdal, R-Arnegard, after five ballots. Drovdal defeated Reps. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, and Larry Bellew, R-Minot.

It was Drovdal's third campaign for the job, which involves presiding over the House's floor sessions and assigning bills to committees for hearings. The House speaker serves one two-year term.

Republicans increased their majorities in both the House and Senate in this month's election, picking up nine Senate seats and 11 House seats. GOP senators now outnumber Democrats 35-12, while House Republicans hold a 69-25 edge.

North Dakota budget analysts expect the state will have a budget surplus of about $1 billion by June, and Carlson said Monday that GOP legislative candidates heard a recurring theme from voters: "Don't spend it all."

"The people ... were quite clear. Make sure you fund your priorities, make sure you continue the property tax relief that you've started, and don't spend all the money," Carlson said. "We heard more than anything, 'Just because you've got it all, don't spend it all.'"

Stenehjem said new Gov. Jack Dalrymple will give North Dakota lawmakers a budgetary starting point when he gives his budget recommendations to the Legislature Dec. 8. Dalrymple is succeeding incumbent Gov. John Hoeven, who was elected to the U.S. Senate this month.

"We're going to try to keep a handle on the state's budget. I think that's what the voters told us," Stenehjem said. "It's hard, but I think the mandate is there. ... When you have money, everybody thinks you have to spend it all, so there's going to be a lot of pressure to spend it."

North Dakota state government spending has risen steeply in the last four years, propelled by oil tax collections and federal stimulus money. The 2009 Legislature increased the state's two-year budget by 34 percent last year, from $6.62 billion to $8.85 billion. Total state spending increased 14.5 percent in the two years before.

House Democrats will elect their floor leaders late Tuesday. Reps. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, and Jerome Kelsh, D-Fullerton, are competing to succeed longtime House minority leader Merle Boucher, of Rolette, who ran for North Dakota agriculture commissioner instead of seeking re-election to his House seat. Boucher lost to Republican incumbent Doug Goehring.

In the Senate, incumbent Democratic leader David O'Connell said Monday he would not run for his fifth term, which left Towner Sen. Ryan Taylor without opposition for the job. Senate Democrats are holding their leadership elections at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

In the House speaker's race, Bellew was eliminated on the first ballot when he finished behind Drovdal and Hawken. In three subsequent ballots, Drovdal and Hawken both failed to get the required 35 votes, which is a majority of the 69 House Republicans. Four GOP lawmakers were absent from Monday night's meeting.

On the fifth ballot, House Republicans agreed to award the speakership to the person who got the most votes among the legislators who were present. Drovdal prevailed, 33-32.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can. My door will always be open for you," Drovdal told House Republicans in a brief victory speech. "Time to go home."

Rep. Don Vigesaa, R-Cooperstown, was unopposed for a second term as House assistant majority leader, while Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, was elected House GOP caucus chairman, a job that involves raising money for and helping the campaigns of House Republicans.

Nathe was unopposed. He succeeds Rep. Gary Sukut, R-Williston, who did not seek re-election.

Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, was re-elected as the Senate's assistant GOP majority leader, while Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, was re-elected as Senate Republican caucus chairman. Neither man was opposed.

The leadership elections were scheduled this week to coincide with a two-day meeting of Legislative Management, a panel that oversees a network of interim committees that study issues and recommend legislation. All incumbent and newly elected lawmakers are invited to attend the meeting, which begins Tuesday.

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