Port: North Dakota's legislative process has never been more open and accessible

Following the bills before our Legislature and the actions of the lawmakers themselves is easy for anyone who cares to engage.

North Dakota's House chamber
File photo

MINOT, N.D. — To work in journalism is to accentuate the negative.

There's a saying in this line of work explaining why that is: "Safe airplane landings aren't news." The planes are supposed to land safely, you see. It's our job to report the crashes. When they happened. Why they happened. Who they hurt.

So it goes, too, with covering the workings of government. We cover the negative. We probably don't spend enough time talking about the positives.

By way of remedying that, at least for today, allow me to heap praise on the work our state Legislature has done on their website . It is vastly improved over previous iterations and brings a level of transparency and accessibility to the legislative process that previous generations of North Dakotans could only dream of.

It may seem odd to praise the site so late in the session, but many of you in the audience, even those who follow the Legislature closely, may be unaware of just how powerful this website has become. So allow me to give you a tour of sorts, because the utility of this site goes for beyond the few months our lawmakers are in session.


The biography pages for the lawmakers are very useful. You can search for them by name, legislative district, party affiliation, etc. The contact information for your elected officials is listed, of course, but that info was always available, though it remains a marvel that so many of our lawmakers list their personal cellphones and home addresses. Call a cellphone, and they'll probably pick up.

Secretary of State Michael Howe is asking the group to make an amended filing within 10 days.
"I'm an atheist, and even I'm shocked about the level of anti-religion antipathy this legislation has engendered."
"Yesterday term limits activists filed an ethics complaint over what they say is an unreported contribution to a lawmaker. Today it seems they have a significant discrepancy in their own finances."
Former Gov. Ed Schafer says state lawmakers are in danger of squandering the Legacy Fund. He talks about it on this episode of Plain Talk, where we also delve into the debate over school lunches.
"Why shouldn't parents who use public dollars to send their children to private schools enjoy the same level of access to the tools of transparency and accountability?"

Say what you want about our Legislature, but they are eminently accessible. Just don't abuse that access.

Also on those biography pages are links allowing you to bring up lists of each bill sponsored and cosponsored by a given lawmaker.

Take a gander at Rep. Bert Anderson , as an example, who I picked as an illustration simply because he was at the top of the list alphabetically. You can also click over to an archive of videos of him and watch every word he's spoken during floor debates or committee deliberations. Both for this session and previous cycles as well, though the video features are relatively new, so they are not available beyond a certain date.

It wasn't so many years ago that you had to be in Bismarck and in the room to watch your lawmakers. Now you can do it from home when it's convenient for you.

The bill search , too, is extraordinarily useful. You can search by bill number, of course, but also by the legislative sponsor. Or by committee. Or the actions taken on the bill (amended, signed by the governor, etc.). You can also search the texts of the bills themselves. Interested in legislation related to fishing? Just plug that term into the search box.

Once you find the bill you're looking for, you can see everything there is to see about it. Its various iterations as it makes its way through the legislative process, of course, but also the actions that have been taken on it (scheduled committee hearings, floor votes, etc.), a video archive of the floor and committee debates on the bill, and even copies of every bit of written testimony submitted.

Some of this functionality was available on the previous legislative website, but what was available wasn't organized nearly so well.


The state still maintains a bill tracking system that's a carry-over from its previous website. It allows you to create lists of bills you want to follow closely. It's helpful, though it remains an area in need of improvement.

But that quibble aside, our lawmakers and their staff who have made this information available to the public deserve our praise.

The legislative process can be confounding. Disheartening. Even depressing. Democracy isn't easy. But it's certainly easier when the work our elected officials is so readily available to anyone who cares to scrutinize it.

Following the bills before our legislature and the actions of the lawmakers themselves has never been easier than it is right now.

Kudos to everyone who has made that happen.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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