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The pros of a one-house legislature

By Staff | Jul 26, 2013

With the proposal by the Legislature of a constitutional amendment to replace the present 8-member Board of Higher Education with a 3-member commission, North Dakota legislators apparently think that having fewer people involved in governance would result in better decisions.

While the premise is disputable, perhaps this is the time to bring up a reform that would downsize and improve state government while also reducing the cost.

It’s time to take another look at the advantages of a one-house legislature, something we haven’t done for 40 years. The unicameral has performed quite well in Nebraska since it went in operation in 1937.

The arguments for the one-house legislature are even more valid today than they were when presented to the voters of Nebraska in the 1930s. There are several advantages, any one of which is persuasive.

More representation: A one-house legislature of 80 members elected from 80 districts would better represent the grass roots. Eighty districts would bring members much closer to their constituents than the present 47 districts. We would no longer have western districts larger than some states.

Eliminate duplication: The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires that both houses of state legislatures represent equal numbers of people so that North Dakota senators and representatives, elected from the same districts, now represent the same people.

Eliminate buck-passing: As we saw in the last weeks of the recent legislative session, the two houses spent much of their time passing the hot potatoes to each other. The buck-passing enables legislators to go home and blame the other house whenever they are confronted by irate constituents. There is no buck-passing in a one-house system.

Greater accountability: By eliminating the buck-passing, legislators would become directly accountable for their own voting records. We keep asking for more accountability in state agencies, schools, cities and counties. There is no reason we shouldn’t have more accountability in the legislature.

No conference committees: A one-house legislature would eliminate the need for conference committees, the greatest shortcoming of the 2-house system. Conference committees are required to iron out differences between the two houses. In these middle-of-the-night meetings, major provisions of bills are inserted or thrown out, without the opportunity for citizens to give additional testimony or correct misstatements.

Richard Elkin, veteran legislator and former public service commissioner, once noted that the conference committees were the “worst evil of all” in the legislative process.

In North Dakota, he observed, conference committees of only six persons three from each house decide the outcome of major legislation.

In Nebraska, the one-house system has three readings and two hearings on bills, thereby allowing plenty of comment before final passage. And there is no need for conference committees when one house is acting with full transparency and intensive media coverage.

Better media coverage: The two-house system complicates media coverage. Two houses require twice as many committees and the media are forced to spread coverage across a wide range of activities. In the process, important information is missed.

Citizen involvement: A simplified legislative system with better media coverage would enable citizens to interact with the legislature. More citizens could afford one trip to Bismarck easier than two.

Under the two-house system, unless ordinary citizens spend extraordinary time tracking bills, they can never be sure whether a bill has been killed, or passed, or is in a chairperson’s pocket.

Reduce lobbyist influence: A transparent legislative process with more intensive media coverage will reduce backroom deals and lobbyist manipulation now possible in a confusing two-house system.

Next week: Looking at criticism of the unicameral.

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