Go digging around in the past and you're bound to come across details suggesting that history does repeat itself. There are many apparent coincidences, except these are really antecedents and consequences, because lawmakers wrestle with familiar issues almost every session.

This notion came as I observed the goings on at the Legislature after more than a year of immersion in the history of the Bank of North Dakota. The Bank and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator celebrate centennial anniversaries this year. Both were chartered by the 16th Legislative Assembly, which met in 1919. These institutions are unique to North Dakota, as most North Dakotans understand and appreciate (at least if they've read the book).

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

The bank and the mill were not the only products of that assembly, however; three others are subjects of controversy in this session. One exempted farm improvements from property taxes. Another required a single official newspaper in each county. The third established a Board of Administration to govern the state institutions, including the colleges and universities as well as the reform school and the penitentiary.

These initiatives have been largely forgotten, overshadowed as they are by the session's evident successes. The exemption of farm improvements came to public attention only because the North Dakota Newspaper Association's interns - UND students, both of them - mentioned that a state representative had declared a conflict of interest because he benefited from the law. His conflict was noted, and he was allowed to vote.

The 1919 session also required that an official newspaper be chosen by popular vote in each county, and all public notices would be printed in that paper. The law also required that a copy of the official newspaper be deposited with the State Historical Society - as a cost of doing business. That afterthought has been of enormous benefit to historians.

The official newspaper law was a catastrophe for newspaper publishers, however. One third of the state's newspaper failed in the three-year period after the law was passed. Later legislative sessions relaxed the law, and more recent sessions have chiseled away at publication requirements -and on the state's open meetings and open records laws, which are of crucial importance especially if governments at all levels aren't required to publish agendas, minutes and other notices.

The Board of Administration turned out to be a uniquely intrusive way to govern state colleges and universities. At one point, competitive boards sought to fire presidents at UND and the Agricultural College, now NDSU. In the end, the board became a victim of its own intrusiveness.

In 1937, Gov. William Langer ordered the board to fire faculty members on the Fargo campus, leading to the initiated measure that created the State Board of Higher Education, which has survived four times longer than its predecessor - so far.

This year's legislative assembly, the 66th since statehood, seemed to promise extensive reforms, and some of the promises were explicit. Gov. Doug Burgum said he'd do away with the Board of Higher Education, for example.

He and other North Dakota Republicans warned of the dangers of socialism and promised to keep it out of North Dakota - overlooking the fact both the Bank of North Dakota and the Mill and Elevator are successful state-owned businesses.

Writing prophecy is more dangerous than writing history, of course, because the lawmakers of the present can ignore it and historians of the future can disprove it. Still, a paragraph of speculation might be in order. What accomplishments will historians find in the records of this session?

Governance of higher education, a recurrent theme in the state's history, is one possibility. Governance is a policy issue, however; largely mechanical rather than visionary.

Future historians likely will look at how the state invested the wealth it has accumulated (and mostly sat on) from taxes on oil. What use was made of the Legacy Fund, built on taxes from oil production? How long did the golden gusher last?

No doubt they'll note with some astonishment that allocations from oil taxes - required by the state constitution - were misdirected, forcing cuts to some programs, including higher education (or perhaps provided an excuse not to fund them)?

So far, the session has been backward looking in a number of ways, including rolling back the kind of direct democracy that enabled the 1919 session to make great progress - and for voters to check its abuses. The forward steps have been small ones. North Dakotans will be able to shop on Sunday mornings, for example, overturning the last of the state's blue laws - which once banned baseball games, hunting and movies on Sundays, laws that Langer enforced with a vengeance during his tenure as attorney general, including the 1919 session.

One thing is unmistakable. The 1919 session worked at a far faster pace than its modern successor. Lawmakers were allowed 60 calendar days; the 16th session wrapped up in late February with almost a week to spare. Today's lawmakers have 80 legislative days, and they decide which days they count. This means adjournment sometime before the end of April, probably.

That's two months later than the session of 1919.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.