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.

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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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