Bill For Annual Legislative Session Gets Surprising Number Of Votes In ND House

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Today Rep. Keith Kempenich’s bill, HB1262, to have North Dakota’s legislature meet every year instead if biannually was debated on the House floor today. And it got a surprising number of votes. It was defeated, but 30 members of the House (mostly Democrats) voted “yes.”

Kempenich said he hoped to “see a lot of green lights” (yes votes) to prove that, while this bill may not pass, there is interest in changing things.

The state constitution only requires that the legislature meet for the first time in January on odd-number years, and that it not meet for more than 80 days in a two-year cycle. Beyond that, the legislature can really convene whenever it wants, though as a practical matter the logistics of expecting all the part-time legislators to meet limit the decisions. Rep. Kempenich’s bill would have had the legislature meeting every year, though they would still be restrained by the 80 day maximum.

I’ll admit to being torn on this issue. I think Rep. Glassheim made a good point when he talked of the legislature’s Budget Section (an interim committee empowered to make appropriations decisions between sessions) becoming a “mini legislature.”

The legislative process is important, and we ought to minimize the number of legislative decisions made without the consent of the entire legislature.

My concern, too, is that by so thoroughly hamstringing our legislature we give state agencies far too much power. One good example would be the university system. Last session the legislature agreed to funding increases after getting an agreement from the university system to limit tuition increases. But within weeks of the end of the session NDSU requested and got permission from the State Board of Higher Education for an almost 9% tuition hike.

Currently NDSU is also in a showdown with the legislature over federal funding for family planning. The legislature turned down the funding, which was a part of Obamacare, but NDSU accepted it and used it to partner with Planned Parenthood. After some legislators raised objections, NDSU froze the funds, but the feeling in the legislature is that freeze will only last about as long as the session does.

The university system, and other state agencies, might not be so emboldened if the legislature was meeting every year.

I understand the objections most have to this. Twain’s maxim about life, liberty and property being in jeopardy when the legislature is in session is worth keeping in mind. But I also keep in mind the words from a conservative legislator and friend of mine who told me that the other branches of the state government “have two years to get ready to fool us for four months.”

Are we doing ourselves any favors by having a legislature that is so restrained it can’t effectively provide oversight and timely responses?

Perhaps Rep. Kempenich’s bill wasn’t the right bill, but the time may be coming for change.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • RCND

    I would not be surprised if the Greater Bismarck-Mandan Area Chamber of Commerce wasn’t lobbying for it under the justification of enhanced economic development for the Capital area.

  • John_Wayne_American

    They should meet every year, budget one year, policy the next..

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      That would be interesting. Deal with one set of issues one year, and another set of issues the next. And perhaps have a “special bills” committee to let in off-topic legislation of a pressing nature.

  • Rick Olson

    I think they should meet every year as well. As I understand it, the 80 day limit stretches across both years of a biennium. In a way, I’m kind of surprised that there is such resistance to making the change. Instead of dealing with one 80 day session every two years which often runs into May; two abbreviated 40 day sessions would only stretch into March of each year. The way I think it would work is that a legislative assembly would be identified as the First Session in the off-numbered years and the Second Session in the even-numbered years. Similar to how a Congress identifies itself. What John Wayne American suggests would most definitely be feasible as well as responsible.

  • http://nofreelunch.areavoices.com/ Kevin Flanagan

    They do enough damage to the non-subsidized private sector every two years as it is!

  • The Fighting Czech

    So what is your proof that other then threatening the life, liberty, and property, of the citizens, the legislature would get any thing of value done if they were in session every year? So far I see a lot of non essential bills being worked on that dont really need to have time wasted on them at this point of the session.

    Why cant the legislators make changes to the way it operates the most efficiently under the rules of the constitution? All I see now is a bunch of people doing their best to waste the time allotted them so they can cry at the end of the session, that they dont have enough time to do the work.. .

    Hey, if you cant do the job, get the heck out of there…. thats what happens in the Real World>

    • John_Wayne_American

      the problem is, finding GOOD folks that can afford to leave their careers or business for what could be 80 days. Many, many, very well qualified people just cannot be gone for that long in a single stretch, You pretty much loose too much time from the week before Christmas (you really cannot get much real business of any kind done those last 2 weeks of Dec.) through May, that’s year end, beginning of the year for marketing and trade show season through tax time and on..

      By splitting it to 2 sessions you could take a 2 week break at crossover for catch up without out going deep into early field work and planting. It would work well for many more people.

      As an added benefit it would reduce the power of the bureaucracy that seems to run on their own clock once the legislature packs up and leave for 2 years..

      • The Fighting Czech

        Well to be truthful. Its hard to find Good Folks who would actually represent the average citizen in this state who can leave their work for 2 weeks. much less anything longer then that.

        You do bring up a good point. The political system needs to be overhauled, So your AVERAGE citizens can be involved. not just the citizens with money. Id love to see a farm laborer in office, not just a farmer. Id love to see a mechanic or welder in office, not just the business owner… perhaps we need to use more electronic means to accomplish the work that is now done in in Bismarck to allow most of the work to we accomplished in every ones home district. perhaps meeting in Bismarck for a few days at the end of the session to formally pass legislation worked out in the weeks before via online conferences The world has changed greatly in just the last 50 years. there is no reason our political machine still needs to be running as it was 150 years ago.

    • John_Wayne_American

      “So far I see a lot of non essential bills being worked on that dont really need to have time wasted on them at this point of the session”

      We have a tradition in ND that all bills get a hearing and a vote, no matter how “non essential” they seem to you or I, many have very short committee hearings and a quick no vote in committee and even quicker no vote on the floor. They do hear ALL bills. I suppose they could drop that tradition to save a few days total, but How? or Who? Decides which bill does not get heard?

      • The Fighting Czech

        well, “tradition” isnt a very good reason to run so inefficiently. The US senate has figured out how not to pass a budget for the last 3 years. Im sure a small group of legislators in Bismarck should be able to figure out if a bill proclaiming the state insect should have priority over lets say new highways in teh Bakken. If they cant figure these kinds of things out, they need to go back home, and stay there.
        Of course the big drawback to prioritizing bills, is that at day 79, its hard push for a special session. Because they havent had time to proclaim the State vegetable yet.

        • John_Wayne_American

          Remember that there are many parallel committees, in both Chambers each holds hearings on different topics, so the official state cake frosting bill would be heard in a committee that probably runs out of bills long before Social Services and Appropriations does.

          When that happens, you will see those committee members playing a lot of solitaire or surfing the newspapers online at their chamber desks. So the time factor really isn’t quite like you might think.

          They don’t get bogged down on too many of the more mundane votes, although some seemingly unimportant bill, say something hunting related, can turn into a really big deal.

          • The Fighting Czech

            So your telling me the Traditional way of doing things has a lot of people playing Spider Solitaire on the computer for hrs on end through out the session? Your not really doing a good job of convincing me there isnt room for some BIG changes.
            Perhaps a bunch of farmers, small businessmen, and I suppose you can throw in a few lawyers for good measure. (all who stand not to lose one penny when people are sitting around playing Solitaire all day, But at home, would verbally chastise employees for standing around talking for a few minutes instead of working, because THAT costs them money ) are not the best people to put in charge of setting up how they will operate…. I would think that a good business consultant group could be hired to help set up a more efficient way of doing business.
            Frankly, It sounds like there wouldnt be a Union shop out there that wouldnt be envious of the set up our Politicians have set up for themselves in Bismarck.

            I

          • John_Wayne_American

            They, the members on the committees that have completed there work, still have to be there every day for the floor debate and votes that still need to be voted on as they come out of committee.

            What would you wish they do? Give tour of the capitol to 3rd graders? At there desks they are answering email, taking calls from constituents on bills they have yet to vote on.

            I suppose they could hang out in their committee rooms and talk about the gossip of the day, or maybe even plot new ways to separate Kevin and his state income tax refund.

            Remember that while they are sitting in Bismarck making not much every day, their mortgage, heat, lights and car payments are still due back home. Its not like we hire them and pay them big employment packages to just sit around and read the paper. If it sounds like a cushy high paying job for you, spend the next election cycle knocking on doors every night and weekend, and get yourself elected.

  • Drain52

    The less time the legislature is in session up to a point, the better. Every session has me worried about my wallet and my liberty. Eighty days are plenty of time to cover the important bills and chuck the rest. Last session our legislators took time out to, yes, outlaw bottle rockets. Now there was an important use of legislative time.

    The only way state bureaucracies can bamboozle the legislators is through the latter’s unwillingness to learn from history and exercise suitable skepticism. How many times do they have to have the wool pulled over their eyes on “tax breaks” and higher education tricks before they wise up?

    • John_Wayne_American

      A split session by Constitution could not be longer than 80 days, I’d like to see 2 35 day sessions, or 7 weeks each with 2 weeks at crossover to take car of biz back home and give time to add input to pending bills “crossing over”

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      I don’t disagree with your points, though it’s worth pointing out that Kempenich’s bill wouldn’t have expanded the session. It would have just split it.

  • Captjohn

    There are a lot of things to consider if you were to go to annual sessions. When would bill iintroduction dead line come? Would you deal with every bill introduced in a annual session or could they be laid over for the following sessioon? What would be the effective date of legislation passed? When would crossover day be? I could go on and on. Until those types of questions are answered in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the voters I’ll continue to support biannual sessions
    I don’t think annual sessions would make the oversight any better. What is needed is stronger oversight by interim committees. Instead you get ill advised bills limiting the ability of the State Auditor to do his job introduced. If the State Auditor and Legislative Council had more staff to investigate all the arms of goverment you would automatically get more accountability. As it is, I hear folks wanting to limit the power of the legislature which in the end equates to more power in the executive branch. Why do some complain so loudly about the legislature while being abused by higher ed and some agencies. The only limits on the executive branch are provided by the courts and the legislature.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      If the State Auditor and Legislative Council had more staff to investigate all the arms of goverment you would automatically get more accountability.

      I agree with this.

  • Lynn Bergman

    Anderson, Becker, Brandenburg, Drovdal, Fehr, Hatlestad, Kempenich, Kretschmar, Kreun, Maragos, Nelson, J., Paur, Schatz, Steiner, and Weisz are Republicans.

    It would be intersting to find out what convinced them to vote with Democrats and against their fellow Republicans on a bill to increase the intrusion of state government into our lives. A few of these folks actually claim to be conservative…

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