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OMDAHL: The Legislature still doesn’t get it

By Staff | Feb 22, 2019

* A truncated version of this column was in the print edition.

The people of North Dakota don’t trust the Legislature. As a matter of fact, they never did.

In the first place, the Legislature has shown little respect for the people. When the people enact legislation through the initiative, the Legislature spends considerable time at subverting the intent of the voters.

In the recent general election, the people initiated a constitutional amendment to protect the integrity of legislative politics and expose interest group money. The measure passed with a convincing “yes” vote.

Rather than honoring the will of the people, the Legislature is slashing the proposal and will, by the session’s end, have underfunded it to make it unworkable.

If this were the only example of legislative defiance of the wishes of the citizenry, we could attribute treatment of the integrity measure to a temporary pique but this has been a historical conflict between the legislature and the people.

By its hostility, the Legislature continues to demonstrate that North Dakota citizens are justified in jealously guarding the right to initiate and refer legislation. Actually, fear of referral has kept the Legislature in check on scores of ill-conceived ideas.

In preparation for the constitutional amendment, North Dakotas for Public Integrity had the benefit of three separate professional polls that sampled 1400 people. Having spent years in polling at the University, I can vouch for their accuracy,

However, when the Senate Special Committee on Ethics heard the results from North Dakotans for Public Integrity, they expressed disbelief. Naturally, they attacked the polls as inaccurate, something that politicians always do when they don’t like the results.

The first shocking truth was that the Legislature had an approval rating of only 39 percent. From there, it got worse.

*Nearly 80 percent want greater oversight and accountability from state legislators.

*Seventy percent believe that legislators work for the wealthy and powerful more than for ordinary folks.

*More than 80 percent believe that political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than doing what’s right for North Dakota.

*Nearly two-thirds think there is widespread corruption and abuse of power among public officials and employees.

*Around 85 percent think money and campaign contributions have too much influence.

*Over three-fourths allege that powerful interests have rigged the system for themselves.

As a former public official, I am attuned to the negative comments about the evil people in government. The polls have accurately measured the opinions but the opinions are not well founded.

This high level of skepticism does not speak well for democracy and should command the attention of everyone who believes in government by the people. Citizens must be reassured that their governments are honest, in spite of the transgressions of a few.

This brings us back to the constitutional amendment proposed by North Dakotans for Public Integrity and passed by the voters last November.

The amendment requires more integrity in the political system less corrupting money, more transparency and a standing ethics commission. Full implementation by the Legislature would be a big step in the right direction.

On the other hand, if this measure is not implemented properly, the Legislature will once again be telling the citizens to “go home and slop the hogs.”

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

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