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North Dakota conservatives aim to put term limits on ballot in 2022

The proposal would cap the governor and state legislators at eight years of service, though lawmakers could serve up to eight years each in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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Republican Minot Rep. Jeff Hoverson speaks at rally against mandatory mask-wearing on Monday, April 5, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — A group of conservative activists and lawmakers has set its sights on cementing term limits for North Dakota legislators and governors in the state Constitution.

A 42-member sponsoring committee led by District 38 GOP Chairman Jared Hendrix, of Minot, submitted a petition to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Thursday, July 1, detailing a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would cap the governor and legislators at eight years of service, though lawmakers could serve up to eight years each in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The petition also includes a grandfather clause for anyone currently serving in state government, so the clock wouldn't start ticking on their tenures until after voters approve the term limits. A provision in the petition would prohibit the Legislature from proposing a constitutional amendment to eliminate the term limits.

If Jaeger approves the petition for circulation later this month, the group would need to gather 31,164 signatures from North Dakota residents over the course of a year to put the question on the ballot in 2022.

Hendrix, a former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a news release that his group believes in term limits because they "ensure everyone from our communities can run for an open seat rather than going up against well-connected incumbent politicians." Hendrix did not respond to Forum News Service's requests for comments.

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A handful of Republican state lawmakers sit on the petition's sponsoring committee, including Reps. Rick Becker, Jeff Magrum, Tom Kading, Nathan Toman and Jeff Hoverson and Sens. Oley Larsen and Jason Heitkamp. Most of the legislators align with the far-right Bastiat Caucus, an unofficial collection of lawmakers that does not disclose its membership.

Becker, a Bismarck plastic surgeon and the founder of the caucus, said his constituents have made clear they want term limits on politicians. He said capping years of service in the Legislature and the governor's office would inject fresh blood and new ideas into government and mitigate incentives for lawmakers to cater to establishment politicians in hopes of moving up the power structure.

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Rick Becker

Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who is tied for the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country , said term limits already exist in the form of elections since voters get to choose whether to reelect their leaders. Holmberg, who was first elected in 1976, said eliminating tenured lawmakers' institutional memory allows bureaucrats and lobbyists to assert more control.

Becker acknowledged that getting rid of legislators with knowledge of the lawmaking process could be problematic, but the effect would be diminished by legislators being able to serve eight years in each chamber. Becker added that he's fully on board with limiting the governor to two terms just like the U.S. president.

Holmberg noted that passing term limits would create a local control issue where voters in one part of the state are deciding who voters in another part can elect. For example, term limit supporters in Grand Forks shouldn't be able to tell Fargo voters they can't reelect long-serving lawmakers like Rep. Jim Kasper and Sen. Judy Lee, Holmberg said.

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Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, addresses members of the North Dakota House and Senate appropriations committees Jan. 7, 2019. Forum News Service file photo
Forum News Service file photo

Fifteen states, including South Dakota and Montana, have active term limits on legislators, and six states have repealed term limits that were previously in effect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . No states have passed new term limit requirements since Nebraska in 2000.

Two other groups have already gained Jaeger's approval to gather signatures for constitutional initiatives this year. One would legalize recreational marijuana , and another aims to raise the threshold for amending the state Constitution.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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