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ND Legislature a Johnny-Come-Lately

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columns Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

When I heard in December last year that North Dakota's Legislature wasn't scheduled to meet until 2013, I thought it was perhaps an anomaly. It was only after researching the state's governmental set-up that I learned that our senators and representatives are required to meet only every other year.

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For those of us in the Oil Patch, this is quickly becoming a problem. And experts say this "gold rush" has a life expectancy of 40 years or more. That means our problems stemming from oil activity are bound to compound and the government we turn to for assistance and leadership may or may not be in session, depending on what year it is.

Throughout this year, The Dickinson Press has reported on the amount of money the government is generating as tax revenue from oil activity. In those stories, state officials are often blown away by just how much more money is coming in versus what was projected during the last legislative session in 2011.

You know what I'm absolutely blown away by? Their astonishment over just how outdated a two-year-old projection can be.

Since 2011 -- the same year my family and I moved to Dickinson -- North Dakota's oil production has carried the state into the No. 2 spot for oil-producing states in the nation. Billions are pouring into the state's coffers, and although Gov. Jack Dalrymple has suggested an increased North Dakota Department of Transportation budget to help rebuild our crumbling roads, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

As you may have noticed, I said that my family and I moved here. Prior to taking up residence in North Dakota, we lived in Sidney, Neb. As a former Nebraskan, I'm proud to say that the state duked it out with North Dakota throughout the Great Recession to be the state with the best economy. And despite North Dakota's oil boom easily granting it the No. 1 spot month after month since last year, Nebraska has continued to remain among the top 3 best economies.

Both states tout their success as a result of legislative policies that left each state in an advantaged position.

Nebraska and North Dakota have a lot in common -- neither state has a large population and both rely heavily on agriculture -- but they also have their differences. For instance, North Dakota has an oil boom and Nebraska's economic diversity is much greater.

Nebraska is also the only state with a Unicameral, meaning the state doesn't have a senate or a house. It has just one legislative body. While I wouldn't recommend that North Dakota shift away from its two-house government, it might behoove our representatives to take a page out of the Nebraska Unicameral's schedule book.

You see, the Unicameral meets in odd-numbered years for a long session, or 90 days. In even-numbered years, it meets for a short session, or 60 days. But no matter what year it is, the state's governing body meets to address the state's needs and its citizens' concerns.

Just like the 2011 oil-revenue projections, North Dakota's every-other-year legislative schedule is outdated. The state's population is growing at a rapid clip, our needs are growing just as rapidly and we need our legislators to tackle these issues when they are relevant. Not two years after the fact.

We live in an increasingly instant-gratification society, and while slow and steady may win the race, this oil boom -- and the problems it brings with it -- is far from slowing down.

It's my understanding that previous attempts by some legislators to change the meeting schedule have failed, but I would submit to our officials that perhaps now is the time to review a change and let's get something in place that stands a better chance of falling less behind the accelerated development that's overtaking western North Dakota.

Byrd is The Dickinson Press copy editor. Email him at kbyrd@thedickinsonpress.com.

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