Would “Honest John” Burke Recognize Today’s N.D. Legislature?

As the Republican-led North Dakota Legislature grapples with issues big and small, many of its members walk past the statue of John Burke. “Honest John” came to Dakota Territory in 1888 and is said to have done everything from pitching bundles to teaching school, reading law — even publishing a newspaper. I don’t know how he had the time as he was in both the state House, the Senate, the governorship and on the state supreme court. As a capstone he was a federal treasury secretary in the Woodrow Wilson administration.

An advocate for limiting lobbying, I’m not sure Burke would recognize the political climate today. Certainly he’d see fewer farmers in legislative spots.

While visiting the capitol as a part of a four-state agricultural legislation outlook for Agweek (See the Jan. 19, 2015, cover story, and Agweek TV)  I ran into long-time acquaintance, Rep. Jon Nelson, a farmer from Wolford, N.D., and a member of the House for 20 years. Nelson told me there are only about 16 active farmers in the Legislature anymore. Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees often have some tie to the industry, but few are farmers.

A former Agriculture Committee member and now on the Appropriations Committee, Nelson is hearing the pain in the oil  sector because of plunging prices. But he reminds colleagues  the agriculture industry has gone through the “same thing” in the past several months.

“It’s part of the game, we have to live with it. It doesn’t scare me,” Nelson says. “We realize in the big scheme of things there are valleys and peaks and we should have policies in place to get us through this. I don’t see anybody coming to the aid of agriculture when corn drops to $2 a bushel.” Well, the Legislature makes an effort.

Ethanol advocates in the state are concerned about heading off any surprise effort to scuttle the state’s counter-cyclical subsidization of their industry. An unexpected effort to do that came up in the 2013 Legislature. Nelson was there to notice it and stop it. Why keep a safety net for ethanol? Nelson says that’s simple: “If wasn’t for ethanol, what would prevent corn from going to 50 cents a bushel?”

A bit of exaggeration, yes, but Nelson — the farmer-legislator — has a point.