Should The North Dakota Legislature Meet Every Year?

north_dakota_senate_chamber

Earlier this week a column in the Dickinson Press by copy editor Klark Byrd caught my attention. In it, Byrd expresses frustration with what he characterizes as the legislature’s slow response to oil impact out west, something he blames on the fact that the legislature meets once for 80 days every other year.

“Just like the 2011 oil-revenue projections, North Dakota’s every-other-year legislative schedule is outdated,” writes Byrd. “The state’s population is growing at a rapid clip, our needs are growing just as rapidly and we need our legislators to tackle these issues when they are relevant. Not two years after the fact.”

I think Byrd overestimates the efficiency even a full-time legislature could have in responding to changes as rapid and profound as the changes in the oil patch have been. Democratic government moves slow, for a lot of excellent reasons. No government short of an autocratic regime could have acted swiftly enough to respond to the needs of communities doubling and tripling and size, and road traffic that has quadrupled on some highways.

What’s more, I’m skeptical of using the unprecedented short-term growth in the oil patch as justification for changing the structure of state government that has served the state well for generations.

But Byrd does make an interesting point. He suggests that North Dakota emulate Nebraska, not in that state’s uniquely (by American standards) unicameral legislature, but in the legislature meeting every year.

Nebraska meets one year for a long, 90-day session and the next year for a shorter, 60-day session. “But no matter what year it is, the state’s governing body meets to address the state’s needs and its citizens’ concerns,” writes Byrd.

Would that be a good idea for North Dakota?

Again, I don’t think the oil boom is a proper justification. North Dakota has never seen anything like it, and probably won’t again in our lifetime or the lifetimes of our children. Changing the structure of government for what is a one-time, temporary situation isn’t a good idea.

But there is another problem North Dakota’s government suffers from. I often hear our part-time legislators complain about the advantage full-time members of the state government have over them. “They have two years to prepare to fool us for four months,” is a phrase I’ve heard often. The legislators feel that they’re often bamboozled in session by the state’s various departments and agencies. The best example of this might be higher ed, who in the last session promised to abide to a tuition cap the legislature requested only to see the state’s largest school request, and get, an 8.8% tuition hike from the State Board of Higher Education just weeks after that session ended.

Would a legislature that meets every year solve that problem? Maybe, but a legislature that meets more often and for longer periods presents additional problems. North Dakotans like the idea of citizen legislature, but setting aside four months from career and family is tough for most citizens. Setting aside an additional couple of months for a secondary session in off-years would be almost impossible for many legislators currently serving in North Dakota.

Nebraska’s model would require that a legislator devote more than 20% of their days in a two-year period to serving at a legislative job that would pay, based on North Dakota’s current rate of $148/day, would be just over $11,100/year (plus some expenses which, at levels currently paid, often leave our legislators paying for things out of pocket).

That’s a pittance for the amount of time required not just in session but out of session meeting with constituents, etc.

There would still be people would would gladly serve in the state’s legislature, but who would these time and fiscal demands limit service too? Only wealthy citizens? That doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me.

We could perhaps moderate the impact of such a change by simply splitting the session into two, with the legislators meeting every year for 40 days. I’m not even sure that such a change would require a change in the law. The state constitution specifically states that the 80 days of session the legislature is limited to in a biennium “need not be consecutive.” The constitution does require that the legislature meet in session no later than the 11th day of January, but that single session needn’t encompass the entire 80 days the legislature is allowed.

That session could be limited to 40 days, with another session held the next January using the remaining 40 days.

That, I think, would have the advantages of allowing the legislature to govern more often without the disadvantages of putting too much burden on members serving, or saddling the state with a full-time legislature. Because, as Mark Twain once wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”

If we’re going to reform the legislative session at all, and I’m still not entirely convinced it’s needed, we should do that.

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

    Here is a breakdown of full time legislatures (80% or more time spent legislating- http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/legislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx), and where their state ranked in the best/ worst run states in America (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/the-best-and-worst-run-states-in-america-150415625.html)

    California (50)
    Michigan (31)
    New York (39)
    Pennsylvania (20)

    Here are those with less than 80% time, but can still be considered somewhat full time:

    Illinois (48)
    Florida (42)
    Ohio (30)
    Massachusetts (19)
    New Jersey (46)
    Wisconsin (21)

    Here are states with truly part time legislatures, like ND, with ranks

    Montana (18)
    New Hampshire (14)
    North Dakota (1)
    South Dakota (7)
    Utah (4)
    Wyoming (2)

    The slightly less part time, but not full time:

    Georgia (34)
    Idaho (22)
    Indiana (23)
    Kansas (15)
    Maine (35)
    Mississippi (40)
    Nevada (45)
    New Mexico (44)
    Rhode Island (49)
    Vermont (8)
    West Virginia (24)

    Is there a direct link… probably not, but I think it contributes. An argument can also be made that the fuller time legislatures have to organize that way because of the population of their states. That may be, but I think overall what this shows is meeting full time does not necessarily improve the operation of a state; in fact it appears the more/ longer they meet, the worse the results.

    ND has a good thing going. I think the best benefit is our legislators have no choice but to remain grounded in their communities due to their part time status. They don’t lose touch with reality for the most part, and for the most part attempt to legislate based on reality.

  • splined

    How about once every 3 years

  • Thresherman

    The government that governs least, governs best. Yes, the response to the oil boom is less than what could have been hoped for, but there is hardly any reason to believe that an additional session would have helped that. In fact, an annual seesion would tend to have legislators table issues for the next session rather than being forced to abide by the deadline they now have. Additionally, an extra session would provide an opportunity for more governmental mischief to be instigated as more government creates more problems than it solves.

  • kevindf

    They do more than enough damage to the private sector every two years.

  • Lynn Bergman

    Every two years will serve us well as more and more crony capitlism is uncovered. It will allow ample time between sessions to investigate, press charges, adjudicate, and set examples between sessions.
    Why would the best run state change anything it does?

    • Roy_Bean

      “Why would the best run state change anything it does?”

      I could try to explain this to you but since we are all to ignorant to understand the workings of the University System, I’m sure I’m not smart enough to explain it and if I was it would be too complex for you to understand anyway. We can start with one of the posts above.

      California (50)
      North Dakota (1)

      When ever the smart, educated people at the colleges need someone new to run something they go straight to California since California is 49 places ahead of North Dakota. Since they are the smartest most educated people in the state, I think if the college system thinks we need to be like California then who are we to argue?

  • ShortSighted

    The editor’s remarks shows his ignorance in not even mentioning the interim committees which have spent millions as interim unplanned spending.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      That’s a really good point.

  • fredlave

    NO!

    • DelawareBeachHouse

      Fredl’s right. Simple question, simple answer; No!

  • Wimbledon

    I am a Senator from District 43 in Grand Forks. I run an 80 person architecture firm with 7 offices and can tell you that it is a lot of work to do both. The legislature needs members from business, just as it needs teachers and farmers. In my case (and I think most other business owners in the legislature) a full time legislature would be the end of business owners being able to participate. We simply couldnt take that much time away from our companies. The idea of splitting into two 40 day sessions would actually help – same amount of time but not gone for such a long stretch. My opinion is that our part time legislature is one of the main reasons ND has more common sense and less regulation than most states (I’ve been told we should meet 2 days every 80 years)! Nebraska focuses on policy one year and finance the next. Maybe this could work?

  • Rick Olson

    South Dakota has a similar limit on the number of days that the Legislature may meet per biennium. They meet for 40 days in the odd-numbered year in order to pass the budget and all revenue bills, they then meet in the even-numbered year for 35 days to take care of policy matters and whatever else comes up. The big difference between North Dakota and South Dakota is that in North Dakota, all bills and resolutions must be reported out of committee either favoraby or unfavorably, and final disposition of a bill occurs on the floor of the chamber. In South Dakota, the committees are empowered to kill legislation in committee. I think this is where North Dakota lawmakers waste a lot of their time. Having to vote on bills and resolutions that could very easily have been disposed of in committee. I am taking about the items that get “do not pass” recommendations in committee.

    Speaking about Nebraska, they are unique in that its the only state with a single chamber or unicameral legislative body. However, that legislature is probably the most politicized in the country, despite the fact that its members do not run under party labels and serve on a nonpartisan basis (required by the state constitution). Every bill that is considered must go through two rounds of debate and a final vote before it is passed.

    I think North Dakota is almost going to have to go to annual legislative sessions. It can be done with the current 80 day limit per biennium. Split the session up between both years of the biennium. Also, with the shorter timeframe, they would have no choice but to allow committees to kill legislation in committee.

  • nimrod

    Every 2 years is too often. I cringe thinking of how many freedoms could be lost every session. Guys like Ed Gruchalla introduces only freedom robbing bills every time; and I would hate to see him have twice the opportunities.

  • jimmypop

    no

  • captdorso

    We do not need annual sessions. It would limit the diversity of the legislature. No legislative committee can spend money in the interim. Any emergency funding is handled by the emergency commission which in the main has worked fine. Those funds must be addressed by the legislature when it meets in regular session before the end of the bi-ennium. The longer the critical issues are debated the better the answers.
    The worst run states are those with so called part time legislators or full time. Hasn’t Congress proven what would be the worst model of governance. . You have a truly citizen legislature and you all should be damn proud of it.

  • The Fighting Czech

    Perhaps they could GET TO WORK on the first day on the most important issues, Instead of diving into really important bills like designating the official state bird, or insect…while playing politics until the last moment until the moment on the REAL issues. They could perhaps Prioritize the issues and take care of them in the order of most importance… Get the tough stuff done first, and do the easy stuff after….
    Its would be similar to telling your kid he cant have any desert until he eats his vegetables first. ….

    • badlands4

      Why do you hate the ladybug? :( You speciesist, you ;)

    • John_Wayne_American

      ND Legislature has a policy (maybe a law) that every bill gets its day in committee, then on to the floor for a vote.

      So If we want to have a the state marching band song to be “99 Bottles of Beer” , we can go to our local legislator and it will get put in the hopper for Committee assignment and be voted on in Committee when it fails in the Committee it usually will fail on a floor vote also, and then be over.

      Because of this rule, we get all these schools that think its a neat educational tool to get the kids excited about Government (gee why would they want young children to think Government is so great?) and silly laws like the lady bug law and other crap get dumped on the Committees during those early days. They like to clear all the easy stuff as soon as possible so they can focus later on the big items like policy and taxation.

      Its just way easier to run all the easy things through when everyone is still excited about the new session.

      • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

        I’m beginning to think the “every bill gets a vote” rule should become a thing of the past.

        • RCND

          I actually have to disagree with you on that a bit. I like every bill getting an up or down vote, even if we have to endure the ladybug bills on occasion, for a few reasons:

          1. Letting bills be killed in committee puts too much power in the hands of the few on a committee. It also gives too much power to those assigning bills to the committees (bills do not necessarily have to be given to the “logical” committee); if a bill comes through which the assigners do/ don’t like, they can send it to a committee which will have a better chance of providing the result they want. This can still happen today, but a check and balance is in place which allows the legislature as a whole to overrule the recommendation of a committee.

          2. Committee kills are too politically expedient. Too many deals can be made to kill a bill there so the majority of our elected officials don’t have to take a clear stand on the issues put before their body; instead, our individual representatives and senator can just say when questioned “well, I liked/ didn’t like that bill and I would/ would not have voted for it but the committee killed it”. Forcing the legislature as a whole to decide on the bills submitted makes it clear where each of our representatives and senator stands individually by that action which counts… their vote. It also lets us know if they meant what they said during their campaign by making them follow through during session.

          Besides, even if committees could kill a bill, there is no way the ladybug one would have ever met that fate. Our legislators would have had to endure the ire of outraged citizens storming the Capitol wearing Justin Beiber tshirts

          • http://Sayanythingblog.com The Whistler

            Those are good points, however there are plenty of bills that don’t deserve a vote. Perhaps let the committees kill a bill, but then have a low limit on a discharge petition (25% of the members of the body perhaps) that can force a floor vote.

          • RCND

            That may be workable. I would like to know, however, how much of a problem we REALLY have now with the current system. They still seem like they are able to take care of their business in the allotted time

          • http://Sayanythingblog.com The Whistler

            More like they screw around and then pass the important bills at the deadline. I don’t think that having more time is going to keep them from waiting until the last minute to make the deals.

  • http://Sayanythingblog.com The Whistler

    I certainly wouldn’t want them to meet any more than they do. Let’s keep them scrambling so that they have to focus on what they should be doing and not screwing up what they shouldn’t be doing.

  • OldConserv2011

    Allowing the legislature to meet more frequently or meet for longer periods of time will result in only one thing…more mismanagement of taxpayer money. Leave it as it is, and keep the pressure on your legislators to keep the spending down and reduce taxes!

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