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Good ideas may go into hibernation but they never die. Veteran Public Policy Observer Mike Jacobs recently brought back the idea of changing the North Dakota Legislature from its present biennial schedule to annual meetings.

In a supporting editorial, the Grand Forks Herald noted that the demands of the pandemic and the volatility of oil and agriculture industries can be better met with annual sessions.

Defending the biennial schedule, legislators claimed they have a handle on state finances and emergencies with a jerry-rigged mixture of triggers and interim committees.

Jerry-rigged triggers

Their mechanism raised questions about  interim provisions when one-third of the Legislature met to hand out a sudden windfall of $300,000,000 (stet) in federal pandemic money.  It seems that the sum of money was large enough and important enough to warrant the attention of the whole Assembly.

One of the committees in the system is the Emergency Commission. Having served as chair of the Commission occasionally for Gov. George Sinner, my observation is that the Commission is not structured to handle major interim problems. It doesn’t have an open checkbook to meet significant needs.

A chronic defense for the biennial session is that the state would lose its status as a “citizen-legislature”. Because of the press of state business, the larger states have gone to full-time legislatures.

Common sense

Over half of the states with annual sessions meet during the first four months of the year. If the business of North Dakota does not warrant more than four-month sessions, common sense will dictate shorter annual meetings. So the citizens can still serve in the Legislature.                                

That brings into the fore one of the real reasons legislators oppose annual sessions so vehemently: a number of them would find it inconvenient to serve in annual sessions and the legislature doesn’t have the political will to cope with even a handful of disgruntled members.

Benefiting incumbents

Under the biennial sessions, all of the present legislators can serve. Their presence proves the point. The only conclusion to draw is that legislators opposed to the annual session have an arrangement convenient for them but not necessarily good for the state.  

The biennial session was designed for a day long past. Dramatic changes have taken place since 1889. One of the most significant changes has been the growing interrelationship with the federal government where changes affecting state governments are being passed without regard to state legislative schedules. With a biennial system, the state must wait months before it is able to respond to federal programming.

Eventually, the cost of annual sessions will become an argument because two sessions will cost more than one. So we are going to pinch pennies when a major branch of government needs modernizing. The people of North Dakota are as entitled to an effective state legislature as the citizens of Maine, South Dakota, Utah, New Mexico and about 30 other small states with annual sessions.

A hard sell

Because we can be certain of strong opposition from legislators, we can’t expect them to put annual sessions on the ballot for a vote of the people.

One legislator commented “it’s a voter’s decision, if that is what they want.”

No, it isn’t that simple. When we can’t count on the Legislature to put it on the ballot, the only other option is to circulate petitions. That would be a costly process, involving a statewide education campaign on a subject far removed from the daily concerns of citizens.  It would be a hard sell.

This discussion is timely because the Legislature has placed a measure on the November ballot that would effectively end citizen initiation of amendments to the state constitution.

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