Let us just concede that it has been a strange season in North Dakota politics, with an artesian well of suggestions, objections, innovations and rejections – a dizzying array.
One idea stands out as sensible, though, that the North Dakota Legislature should meet more often, specifically, every year. Tyler Axness laid out a case for annual sessions in his ND xPlains blog last week.
Axness served in the state Senate as a Democrat, and his blog is sometimes a bit shrill – as is frequent among commentators leaning to the left. Tone does not lessen the quality of an idea, however, and Axness has a good one.
The idea of annual sessions of the Legislature has been raised more than once, but never at a time when swift legislative action is so critical as it is now. An 18-month-long gap between sessions is far too long, as the COVID emergency has proven.
The state constitution requires the Legislature to meet in January of odd-numbered years, and it limits the length of any regular session to 80 days. The governor can call a special session, and those days would not count against the constitutional total. If a session runs fewer than 80 days, lawmakers can call themselves back, but only for the length of time remaining in the constitutional mandate.
Legislative leaders have taken advantage of this “wiggle room,” most often to resolve political stalemates rather than to address practical problems like the ones the state is now facing. Another disadvantage of the current system is the deal-making that precedes any “rump session.” Legislative leaders insist on certain actions, and individual members, and party caucuses or legislative interest groups make their own demands. Concessions are made without benefit of debate or public accountability.
As a former legislator, Axness argued that “events happen that need a response,” Annual sessions “would allow for more rapid response from legislators to meet the needs of the state.” He cites two examples, both urgent.
One is the shortfall in funding for the so-called “prairie dog initiative,” a plan to fund infrastructure around the state from revenues raised from taxes on oil production. A good idea widely acclaimed, this initiative collapsed when the price of crude oil sank. This “near death” experience should suggest a lesson learned.
The second example presents the opposite problem. When the COVID emergency engulfed the planet, the federal government made money available under the CARES Act. North Dakota’s share, Axness reports, was $1.25 billion. Without an active Legislature, decisions about that sum – a large one by North Dakota standards – was punted to the state Emergency Commission. That is hardly a representative group. They are all are all men, for one thing. And in North Dakota, they are all Republicans: the governor, secretary of state, chairs of the Senate and House appropriations committees and the majority leaders of each house. Despite differences between the Senate and the House and the Legislature and the executive branch, that is still a cozy little group.
Lack of attention by politicians, public and press only augments the fog obscuring the commission’s work. That would not be the case if the Legislature itself met more often. Every session draws reporters, lobbyists, activists and citizens. It is a much more transparent process than a six-person commission.
To these powerful arguments of expediency and transparency, I would add a third, accountability. The state Legislature meets immediately after the biennial election, getting itself organized in December of even-numbered years and beginning its formal session the following January, with the idea of getting done some time around May 1. That is 19 months before the next general election – such a long time that voters may forget what lawmakers have done or decide to overlook it. Annual sessions would mean lawmakers meeting closer to the day of reckoning – Election Day.
Axness has a good idea – but like many policy wonks he presents an alternative, “contingency budgeting for the biennium.” This, he suggests, “could reduce the governor needing to issue across the board cuts regardless of program or priority.”
North Dakota could move to annual sessions without changing the state constitution. Only three other states in addition to North Dakota cling to biennial sessions: Montana, Nevada and Texas.
Other ideas presented this election cycle run up against the constitutional hurdle. The Legislature’s suggestion that the Board of Higher Education be enlarged to 15 members is one of these – an unworkable idea. A constitutional amendment, presented by petitioners, offers a smorgasbord of ideas for government reforms, some of them good.
Unlike a smorgasbord, however, the amendment asks us to eat it all. No choices allowed.