Should The North Dakota Legislature Meet Every Year?

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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“Just like the 2011 oil-revenue projections, North Dakota’s every-other-year legislative schedule is outdated,” writes Byrd.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.

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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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