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Scanning the 61st Legislature’s performance

By Staff | May 9, 2009

After struggling through the longest session in history, the North Dakota Legislature finally adjourned. Scanning the record, it would be tempting to criticize this biennial assembly of citizens for its shortcomings. And even though they gave us the usual number of shortcomings, legislators should be commended for serving North Dakota in this unappreciated task.

They killed some bad bills; they killed some good bills. They also passed some bad bills and passed some good bills. All par for the course. We all have problems defining “good” and “bad” for legislative purposes.

However, we should appreciate that the 2009 session passed the laws necessary to keep the state running until something better comes along. That in itself is no small feat for an assembly that must look two years into the future.

Fortunately, the Legislature shook off its tantrum over the tobacco initiative and appropriated the money for fighting tobacco addiction as approved by the voters of the state in 2008. Doing otherwise would have raised serious doubts about whether or not the Legislature was really the “people’s” branch of government, as it frequently claims.

While handing out five percent raises to state employees, the Legislature also took five percent for itself, raising its initial daily pay during sessions from $135 to $141 and monthly pay between sessions from $378 to $396. Somehow, raising legislative salaries seems to be a lightning rod for many folks. Not me.

Calculating the $141 per day session pay, the raise brings legislators to an annualized figure of around $50,000.According to the 2006 American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau), the average household income in North Dakota is near $55,000. So the raise is not unreasonable. Besides, legislative salaries should be high enough to enable the greatest number of citizens to serve.

In a reactionary fit, the Legislature authorized the creation of a legislative committee to coordinate, oversee and meddle during the preparation of the state budget for the next session. Apparently dissatisfied with the budgeting of the executive branch, the Legislature wants to go back to the 1950s when legislative budgets were the norm in states.

Back then, the government and funding sources were very simple. Today’s state budget involves a myriad of federal matching provisions and state dedicated funds. It is no longer the simple task of the 1950s when the Legislature realized it couldn’t do the job and joined almost all other states in adopting the executive budget.

Due to the complexity of the budgetary process, this new committee (No! Not another committee!) of 16 part-time legislators will have a difficult time making a constructive contribution. In fact, we will have 16 parochial views of a budget plan when a broad state perspective is needed.Expect a lot of nitpicking.

Of all the tax cuts proposed or passed, the one of greatest merit was the exemption of nonprofit cemeteries from special assessments. Not only did the living get tax relief, but also the dead. Chalk one up for the 2009 session.

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

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