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Omdahl: 40 years of stonewalling ends in fiscal crisis

By Staff | Aug 12, 2016

At the close of the special session of the Legislature, the leadership announced that it would be making reforms in the January session to prevent a repeat of the recent fiscal crisis caused by a plunge in oil and farm commodity prices.

Facing a $310 million gap, the Legislature ordered across-the-board reductions in most state agencies, raided every available reserve fund, and robbed the Bank of North Dakota. This came on top of a $1 billion cut in February.

No consideration was given to asking taxpayers to give back the cuts they got from the oil rush. After all, property and income tax reductions amounted to more than the $300 million shortfall.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, announced that he will propose that the Legislature hire its own revenue-forecasting firm so that legislators can be more involved in the budget process.

To prepare an executive budget, the governor needs revenue projections. So if the Legislature also engages a revenue-forecasting firm, will we pay for two forecasting outfits doing the same work?

If the present forecasters, Moody’s Analytics, are making predictions on the best information available, what would a second batch of consultants use for forecasts, an Ouija board?

The vagaries of the stock markets, federal funding, commodity prices and world economics cannot be projected for two-year periods as now required by a state that insists on biennial legislative sessions. The problem is not rooted in the revenue projections but in the inflexible legislative system.

For 40 years, the Legislature has had the authority to spend 80 days throughout the biennium with flexible scheduling. But it has stubbornly clung to a format that may have worked well in 1920 but is hardly adequate for 2016.

Up to this point, the Legislature has been able to compensate for the lack of flexibility by inserting all sorts of triggers in appropriation bills and delegating interim decisions to a budget committee.

The fast-moving fiscal crisis that caught the Legislature with its pants down discredits the idea that we can run a state the way our grandfathers did. We are now in the 21st century. It’s time we joined it.

One reason we haven’t moved to a more flexible, more responsive legislative system is that change would be inconvenient for a few legislators who couldn’t fit change into their personal schedules.

I can just imagine the party caucus in which the idea of flexibility is being considered. Veteran Senator Charley gets up and says: “If you change to a flexible schedule, I just can’t serve anymore becausebecausebecause.”

A friend then rises to support him. “Gosh, we can’t do that to Charley.” End of discussion, killed by North Dakota nice even when it is wrong.

A second reason we don’t change is that we don’t really want a problem-solving legislative system. By limiting the legislature to one short biennial session, we can stick to maintenance of the status quo. This was demonstrated by the manner in which the special session was handled – no discussion or solutions allowed.

After 40 years of stalling off real reform, it is obvious that legislators have come to believe that the legislative institution is their property to be used for their convenience. It is the people’s institution but it will not be changed to serve the people effectively until the people themselves take charge.

Unfortunately, such a change would benefit everybody in general but nobody in particular. Consequently, no one is motivated to invest the time or money to take legislative reform to the people.

In that respect, North Dakota is in the same quandary as the Native Americans who want better tribal governments but are stonewalled by those in charge.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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