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Omdahl: Governor faces major resistance in reinventing government

By Staff | Dec 30, 2016

Governor Doug Burgum is going to reinvent government. We are not sure what reinventing means to him but if it means reorganizing agencies, he will discover that it is a losing proposition. North Dakotans don’t take to reorganization.

Rather than going all the way back to statehood, let’s just start with 1942 when the Public Administration Service of Chicago did a comprehensive analysis and reorganization plan for North Dakota state government. Some of the recommendations are still gathering dust today, indicating the low priority we place on reorganization.

Rather than implementing the report, state officials of the day thought it would be best to wait until after World War II was over. The connection between reorganization and the War was never explained but by the time the War was over, dust had buried the recommendations.

In 1966, voters rejected proposals to revamp the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government. So the reinventors thought of a different route – a constitutional convention to dramatize the need for reform.

The convention met. The proposed constitution would have made possible reducing the number of elected state officials down to the nationwide average of six per state. Opposed by every state official, and others, the document went down to defeat,

In 1984 and 2000, the voters refused to abolish the office of state treasurer, made obsolete in 1919 with the creation of the Bank of North Dakota.

In November of 1980, the voters defeated another general proposal to revise the legislative and executive branches of government. In 1989, a similar measure was swamped at the polls.

Meanwhile, disorganization was spreading in the underbrush. In 2009, Legislative Librarian Marilyn Johnson counted 142 boards, councils and commissions. (If your interest group doesn’t have a board, council and/or commission, you simply haven’t asked for one.)

We have more local governments per capita, the largest legislature per capita outside of New Hampshire and the most elected state officials outside of South Carolina. So there is room for a lot of reinventing but the Governor should be forewarned that the holder of every public office will fight him to the death.

That’s one reason we pretty much have the same government we started with in 1889.

What this tells us is that North Dakotans like access, even when it means throwing efficiency under the bus. People want a role a big role in government. Having many points at which citizens can be a part of government implements the cultural idea that everybody is important and should “have a say”.

If we haven’t dissuaded the Governor from reinventing, he would be well advised to choose only those entities that have no constituencies because constituencies rise up with a wrath when abolition or consolidation of their entity is proposed e.g. if he told the barbers he was going to mess with their licensing board, he would have to go out-of-state for a haircut.

While the office holders, agencies and their constituencies will be arrayed against him, the governor will be spending lot of political capital on something about which the citizenry does not care a hoot, meaning that the Governor will have no citizen uprising on behalf of reinventing. He’ll be out there alone.

Reinventing North Dakota state and local governments would require the effort of a mountain to produce a molehill. As a recovering government reinventor, I wish the Governor well but will just sit this one out.

On the other hand, it has been said that those who say it can’t be done are sometimes interrupted by somebody doing it.

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

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