Omdahl: State needs more responsive legislative system
As cities and counties in western North Dakota struggle to get ahead of Bakken oil development, evoking discussion of a special legislative session, state government has been hobbled in responding.
One of only four states still impaired with biennial sessions, North Dakota has survived through the decades by improvising “if this happens, this trigger kicks in,” delegating decisions to interim legislative committees, and just letting crises fester.
Considering North Dakota’s cultural aversion to government, suggesting a change to annual legislative sessions would certainly fall on deaf ears. Therefore, something less ambitious but plausible must be considered.
For 38 years, we have had an alternative to annual sessions in the state constitution.
In 1976, the people approved a constitutional amendment repealing the mandate for biennial sessions and authorizing the Legislature to spend 80 legislative days — not in one single session — but distributed throughout the biennium.
Under this provision, first proposed by the 1970-72 constitutional convention, the Legislature could meet for 30 days, receive and assign bills, and then recess for committee meetings and hearings. Then it could use the remaining session days to debate and vote on bills.
With this flexible system, the Legislature would be able to respond more readily to the kinds of crises being faced by communities in western North Dakota.
After 38 years, it seems proper to ask for reasons why such a workable system has not been adopted when it could be achieved with simple changes in the rules of procedure.
One reason is the usual problem of institutional inertia. We have done it this way for 125 years, so we see no reason to change even though this is a different North Dakota.
A more important reason is legislative self-interest.
If the system were changed from a fixed 80-day session to a flexible schedule dictated by circumstances, some present members of the Legislature would find it inconvenient to continue serving.
Even though a small number would be affected by this changeover, they would whine in the political caucuses and their fellow partisans would lament the tragedy of their loss. Partisan friendship is more important than a more effective institution.
It is true that several legislators would be inconvenienced, but we need to acknowledge that the present system has inconveniences that prevent a number of people from serving in the Legislature. Legislative service cannot be considered an entitlement.
This allegation of legislative self-interest is not paranoia. Here are a few examples from the past.
The constitution authorizes the division of Senate districts into two separate districts for electing members of the House of Representatives. Even though house sub-districts would improve legislator-constituent relations, it has not been done.
Such a division would endanger the seats of a handful of legislators, who would find themselves competing with other incumbents because new boundaries throw them into the same districts.
Then there is the manner in which the change to four-year terms was implemented. For the convenience of the legislators, districts elect all legislators every four years instead of having staggered terms for the two house members so that one house member would run in each election.
The reason given for this arrangement? It was convenient for legislators to campaign as teams. Here again, personal convenience trumped responsive government.
North Dakota isn’t the state it was 125 years ago. State government can no longer be ad hoc sideshow while a major economic boom is redoing our economic, social and political environment.
Consequently, the Legislature cannot be run for the personal convenience of its members. The 80-day flexible legislative schedule warrants serious consideration, personal objections notwithstanding.
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.