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Jacobs: An ugly session in ND, but we're grateful

Regarding the North Dakota Legislature's 2013 session, blessedly adjourned in the wee hours of the weekend:

Remember that it's good to be grateful.

The Legislature spread the wealth across the state. Western counties affected by the oil boom got more than $1 billion for infrastructure, including roads and sewer lines.

The session was extraordinarily generous to Grand Forks, providing funds for a new medical school building, an addition to the law school building and some other projects for the University of North Dakota campus as well, a total of more than $130 million.

From these perspectives, the session was a good one -- but the process that produced these results was chaotic. It's worth examining, because it underscores several truths about legislating.

One of these is that a deadline is essential. It forces action even if it doesn't encourage compromise or negotiation. In the end, the 2013 session was the longest in state history, excepting only the very first, when lawmakers had to provide practically everything. For the record, this session occupied 79 days and 21 hours. In other words, it ended with three hours to spare before reaching the constitutional maximum of 80 days.

Here's another truth that this legislative session proved: Leadership is essential.

Leadership develops the program and creates the discipline to get it passed. This session had neither program nor discipline.

Still another law of legislating says that supermajorities are bad for the process.

Republicans had commanding majorities -- more than two thirds -- in both the House and Senate, and there's a Republican in the governor's chair and others in every executive office.

Never in the state's history has one party been more dominant.

There were so few Democrats, in fact, that Republicans had no common enemy, and so they began fighting among themselves. As late as Friday morning, with the deadline in sight, it wasn't clear what would emerge from the session. In fact, the House changed its mind about several important initiatives in the closing days of the session and on at least one in the closing hours.

The fights were not between Democrats and Republicans, but between the House and the Senate and -- importantly -- between House Republicans themselves, who fell on each other because there was no other threat. It makes you wonder if we need a constitutional amendment limiting any one party to 60 percent of the seats in either house.

Republicans didn't just turn on fellow legislators. They undercut the governor, as well.

This isn't unprecedented. What's unusual is the depth of their disagreements, the number of players, the diversity of their points of view and their lack of willingness to compromise.

Still another law of legislating is that, so far as the process is concerned, you're better off to be poor. North Dakota's extraordinary wealth abetted the chaos this session. There was money to spend, and diverse notions about how to spend it.

In the end, the Legislature opened the treasury, arguably a couple of years later than it should have as far as UND is concerned, and perhaps a half decade behind the impact on western North Dakota's infrastructure.

But remember that it's always polite to say "Thank you."

Still, North Dakotans must feel a sense of relief that the Legislature has adjourned. In fact, it's the best news of the week, except that spring has come and the flood has not.

For much of the winter, it seemed that Mark Twain's rule about the Legislature was in effect: "No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the Legislature is in session."

Had he observed this year's proceedings in Bismarck, he might have added, "nor any woman's rights nor any child's opportunity nor any state's reputation."

A supermajority, lack of leadership and a lot of money made bad things possible, including the Legislature's resistance to equal protection in employment and housing, its enthusiasm for restrictions on reproductive freedom and its disregard of child safety. All of these put the session at odds with the tide of history and damaged the state's reputation as a tolerant and open-minded place.

Still, we're grateful for the money.

Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at