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Legislature raises doubts about Legislatures

By Staff | Feb 27, 2009

With 20 proposals to amend the state constitution on its agenda, the 2009 session is raising serious doubts about the wisdom of future assemblies. Amendments approved by a majority in both houses will be submitted to the voters in the 2010 primary and general elections.

One-third of the proposals are directed at state fiscal affairs, either creating new dedicated funds or restricting state and local fiscal options. It seems that the mountain of money in the state treasury has given legislators an attack of fiscal vertigo.

Generally speaking, action not pre-empted by federal or state constitutions is within the jurisdiction of state legislatures. By proposing fiscal restraints in the state constitution, the present legislature is really telling us that future legislatures are not to be trusted and the legislature now in session may be the last assembly of wisdom to appear in North Dakota.  

Given the “private sector” bent in our political culture, any number of the seven fiscal proposals curbing government finance could win legislative approval for submission to the electorate.

Other items among the 20 proposals are three suggestions for moving the 2011 legislative redistricting from the jurisdiction of the legislature itself to a more independent panel. These proposals will all be killed, primarily because the legislature will not divest itself of power. In fact, it is entertaining numerous bills to extend its power into the executive branch and higher education, as well as to micromanage local government. 

Rep. William Kretchmar (R-Venturia) has a proposal to alternate the election of the two House members in each district biennially instead of the present system under which both are elected every four years. This worthy proposal will fail because the present system is convenient for present legislators, considerations of more responsive representation notwithstanding.

Two of the proposed amendments would extend the biennial legislative sessions beyond the present 80-day limit. North Dakota’s cultural “private-sectorism” will kill both of these measures. Limiting the length of legislative sessions is one way to curb the role of government. If the legislature were to meet longer, it would propose more governmental solutions for problems.

One proposal meddles with the committee that nominates members for the Board of Higher Education. It proposes to replace the president of the North Dakota Education Association with the politically-elected attorney general. That may go on the ballot because it fits the legislative bent to grab more control of higher education, and this proposal moves in that direction

A Democratic proposal would require the superintendent of public instruction to be a qualified educator. That will not make it to the ballot for two reasons —  it became a partisan issue in the 2007 session and it violates our cultural bent against professionalism.

As previously noted, the tenor of the 20 proposals reflects an unfavorable attitude in this session toward the judgment of future legislatures. If this estimation of legislative wisdom is correct, we may need a 21st proposal to prohibit future sessions of the assembly.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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