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MIKE JACOBS: Need for session exposes problems in North Dakota

Mike Jacobs. (Michael Vosburg/Forum News Service)

The North Dakota Legislature meets today.

To understand how unusual this is remember that there have been only 15 special sessions of the legislature in North Dakota’s 127-year history.

To appreciate how routine this has become, remember that this is the second time the legislature has met since the regular session adjourned a year ago in April. That first session wasn’t really a special session. It just used up the days that the state constitution allows for legislators to meet. Lawmakers tied up some unfinished business and went home.

Eighty days every two years, that’s all lawmakers get. They can call themselves together if they don’t use all 80 days in their regular session, which convenes on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January of each odd-numbered year, again by constitutional mandate.

If they exhaust their allotted time, only the governor can call them together again, and that’s pretty unusual. It’s happened, on average, once every eight and a half years.

Special sessions are fraught with danger. Unexpected and unwelcome legislation may pop up.

Legislative leaders don’t like that, and neither do governors. That’s why great care has been taken to control this session. Gov. Jack Dalrymple met with legislative leaders, extracting guarantees that nothing unexpected or unwelcome would happen.

Legislators complied. Democrats did put forward their own proposal for the special session. It doesn’t stand a chance, of course. Democrats are less than a third of members in either house. Still, their program could play well in public. This is what worries Republicans the most. Democrats have put particular emphasis on legislative campaigns this election cycle, and this special session occurs dangerously close to voting day.

So expect rigid discipline among Republicans this week. House Majority Leader Al Carlson signaled this over the weekend. “We’re going to try to keep the focus very narrow,” he told Forum News Service’s Mike Nowatzki. In other words, nothing will be considered that the Republican leadership hasn’t agreed upon in advance.

That’s the way to settle the issue and dampen the discussion.

The session will meet, agree on a plan to cut another 2.5 percent out of the state budget in order to match expenditures with available cash, and go home to await the election.

But the urgency of this session — the fact that it has been summoned at all — exposes some weaknesses in North Dakota’s government.

One of these is the failure to anticipate a collapse in state revenue. This is not tied exclusively to falling oil prices. Other segments of the economy have been hit hard, too, including agriculture and tourism.

A second is that the money available for spending isn’t linked directly to oil taxes. Almost all of the money collected from taxes on oil is socked away in various trust funds that legislators can get at only with super majorities — bigger even than Republicans command in the current legislative make-up. Day-to-day government operations are paid for from what is called the general fund, and that is built with income taxes, and more importantly, with sales taxes.

North Dakota’s budget analysts failed to anticipate the dramatic decrease in sales tax collections that followed the drop in oil prices. There were two reasons for the decline. One is that oil companies quit buying those items needed to drill wells. The second is that people working in the oil field quit spending money quite so eagerly. So did farmers. So did just about everybody Budget planners failed to foresee either.

So a better way of forecasting state revenue is essential, as gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum pointed out in his successful campaign for the Republican endorsement.

Further, the state needs more ready access to the very great wealth that’s locked away in its trust funds. The state is not poor. Far from it. Rather, it has limited access to its wealth.

Finally, the state needs more flexibility to address situations such as this. The easiest approach would be annual sessions of the legislature, allowing for quicker responses to financial misfortune. Now that we’re dealing with big money and extremely volatile economies, this may be an idea whose time has come.

All signs point to another 2.5 percent reduction in general fund spending, exempting social service programs by raiding funds that are available and diverting profits from the stateowned Bank of North Dakota.

The consequences of this solution will once again bear most heavily on higher education, and specifically on UND, which has just endured what one campus observer described as “Schafer’s March to the Sea.” He was referring to former governor and interim president Ed Schafer’s budget cutting.

But the consequences for NDSU could potentially be even greater, since officials there used sleight of hand to meet the last round of budget cuts. That might not be good enough this time around.

Jacobs is a former publisher and editor of the Herald.