BISMARCK — Sen. Brad Bekkedahl drew a few nods from other senators recently when he explained to the Government and Veterans Affairs Committee why he was bringing a familiar but often rejected measure back to the Legislature.
“I’m sure that most of you that have been here before have heard from constituents, ‘Well, that’s really stupid (about some law, regulation or situation). Why don’t you fix it?’ I hate having to tell them we have to wait two years to fix it.”
Bekkedahl, R-Williston, is lead sponsor of Senate Bill 2218, which would allow for annual legislative sessions in North Dakota. Currently, the Legislature meets biennially.
SB 2218 would not change how sessions are conducted now during odd-numbered years, but Bekkedahl proposes adding a short session in even-numbered years. Legislative Management, a bipartisan committee with 17 members, would decide the timing and duration of sessions during even-numbered years.
“Operationally, nothing changes in how we do business now in the odd-numbered session years,” Bekkedahl said. “When the Legislature can come back and deal with an issue, we have public hearings. We have public input and have the public involved in that decision making.”
During even-year sessions, legislators would still have no limit on the number of bills they would be able to introduce. However, a bill review committee would prioritize bills to be addressed. Any bills not taken up could be introduced the next year.
The bill does not grant the Legislature any more days allowed in session and would still be limited to 80 days every biennium, as set by the North Dakota Constitution. Because there aren’t any more days being added, the cost to meet annually would be the same as meeting for 80 days every two years. According to Bekkedahl, Legislative Council fiscal analysts budget current sessions to meet 77 out of the 80 days allotted.
Meeting for those extra three days would add a cost of around $159,000.
“If we go 80 days this session, we’re going to spend that $159,000 in just this session,” Bekkedahl said.
North Dakota is one of just four states that still conduct legislative sessions every two years. The others are Texas, Nevada and Montana.
However, the Texas Legislature is able to reconvene at any time and, according to Bekkedahl, that happens often. Montana recently tested a short session similar to what SB 2218 is proposing.
“Times have changed,” Bekkedahl said. “Couple that with a state economy that is predominately tied to global commodities production and global market swings, and the need to react better to changing revenue environments becomes apparent.”
Bekkedahl co-sponsored a similar bill during the 2019 session. He said the major opposition then was concern that if meeting every year it would no longer be a citizen legislature. Other objections involved the increased costs with annual sessions, effects on interim committee assignments and some legislators’ reluctance to meet annually.
“I’ve heard personally from some senators and even representatives, ‘I like my winter off. I don’t want to come back to North Dakota and do this in the even-numbered year,’” Bekkedahl said.
Pete Hanebutt, representing the North Dakota Farm Bureau, testified in opposition to the bill.
“We have a long-standing policy (at the N.D. Farm Bureau) that says the legislative session in North Dakota should remain or should be strictly biennial,” Hanebutt said.
Hanebutt also talked about his experience observing what happened when the legislature in his home state of Indiana and the neighboring state of Kentucky started meeting annually. “What I saw there … was that what grew was state government,” Hanebutt said. “I think it’s a bad idea to go away from the system we have.”
Hanebutt spent time in the Indiana Legislature first as an intern and later as a lobbyist.
“I don’t think it served the people well and I don’t think it made the legislature as connected to the people,” Hanebutt said.
There was vocal support from members of the committee for the bill, including from Sen. Shawn Vedaa, R-Velva, the committee chair.
“Sometimes I feel I’m an 80-day legislator in a two-year window. I get people that call me and have concerns and it’s like I can’t do anything for another year and a half,” Vedaa said. “It would bring us together and maybe some of those really pressing issues we could take care of.”
Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, also voiced support for the bill.
“I tend to agree that this is becoming more and more necessary due to the volatility that we’re finding ourselves in,” Meyer said.
There was also talk in the committee about the potential to make the annual sessions more evenly split between even and odd years. Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo, saw the bill as a possible “stepping stone” to accomplishing that.
“It is very difficult to recruit candidates to run because of the 80-day block of time,” Roers said. “There are very few jobs that you can walk away for 80 days.”
Brayden Zenker is a reporting intern with the North Dakota Newspaper Association.