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One-house legislature still has merit

As I sifted through my records of the 1970-72 constitutional convention for the archives, I was reminded of the lengthy debate among the delegates over the proposal to recommend a one-house legislature. While that effort failed, the current demand for more government transparency should breathe new life into the concept.

The convention was the only genuinely deliberative body to convene since the 1889 convention. The delegates focused on the merits and demerits of issues, unfettered by lobbyists, political parties or ideological predispositions. In this environment, the one-house concept won the support of one-third of the delegates.

Among the unicameral supporters were conservatives, moderates and liberals. They all seemed to find some quality in the one-house that led them to believe the system would be better for legislating in North Dakota than the present two-house system.

Transparency, a characteristic now in public demand, was the one quality that won over many of the one-house supporters. With one house, legislators would no longer be able to dodge the hard decisions by passing the buck back and forth between the houses. They would have to stand up and be accountable for legislative decisions.

With a one-house system, the public could more effectively participate in the law-making process without making several trips to the State Capitol to testify at several hearings. In the bicameral system, bills have a way of experiencing dramatic changes in content as they move from one house to the next, making it difficult for citizens 200 miles from the scene to keep up with the process.

Press coverage would be more complete with only one house. With budgets suffering and capitol reporters disappearing, the media are limited in resources for covering complex legislative systems. A unicameral would allow fewer reporters to do a better job.

A unicameral would get rid of the greatest evil of the two-house system -- the conference committee, an entity that makes a mockery of the open meetings law and government transparency. With major legislation held up until the end of the session, the conference committees make many of the decisions that are rushed through in the last hours of the session.

Interested parties may be unaware that their bills are being emasculated and rewritten by veteran legislators who know the conference committee game. As legislators wait impatiently in the waning hours of the session, they are ready to vote for anything to reach adjournment.

"If the unicameral is so great, why haven't other states followed the lead of Nebraska?" opponents ask. The question loses its validity when we remember that state legislatures have an iron grip on proposing constitutional amendments to adopt a one-house legislature. Nebraska got its unicameral with an initiated measure, a process available in only 18 states and virtually impossible to use in several of those. Legislatures with 150 members are not about to propose unicamerals with 90 members.

Another common argument offered by the bicameralists is that it takes a second house to correct errors made by the first house. With legislators clearly responsible for bad decisions in the one-house system, voters will sift the membership until they get a legislature that doesn't make mistakes. Surely, we can find 90 people in North Dakota able to make good decisions in a one-house system. In any case, the governor has a veto for bad bills.

Now that all of this has been said, I can surrender my convention records to the archives, knowing that I fired one last volley for the unicameral, as futile as it was.