It should go without saying that democratic governments are created to serve the common good.
But humans are fallen beings with wide streaks of self-interests. So when they get into the government, they have a tendency to subvert the common good to personal benefit.
This may seem like an unnecessary delay of the subject at hand, but the subject at hand cannot be argued without acknowledging the human behavior that impedes the progress of the legislative branch of state government.
State Sen. Brad Bekkedahl of Williston knows what I am talking about because he has once again introduced a bill to authorize annual sessions of the Legislature.
In a well-written article on annual session discussions in Bismarck, Brayden Zenker, a North Dakota Newspaper Association intern, offered a great summary of the legislative dialogue. Most of what legislators say against the annual session has nothing to do with the common good.
Sen. Bekkedahl gives us the compelling reason why the state Legislature will never go annual. Zenker quotes Bekkedahl: “I’ve heard 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.’”
Annual sessions may be for the common good, but the legislators have decided that their winter vacations are more important than the office they swear to uphold.
Here’s the picture for both the Republican and Democratic caucuses meetings to decide what they should do about the annual session. In both caucuses one or more will get up and say: “Gee whiz, if you go to an annual session, I can’t serve.”
North Dakota nice kicks in. The caucuses can’t possibly change the system if it means other Democrats or Republicans wouldn’t be able to serve. We have to keep Hilda, Bob, Harry, Tom and Genny in the Legislature so let’s table this crazy idea until next year.
Sen. Shawn Vedda said he gets calls to solve problems but has to tell his constituents he will deal with it in a year and a half when the Legislature meets again. By the time the Legislature meets, problems become worse. Of course, if a legislator is sitting down on the beach every other winter, the constituents can’t find him/her so constituent service suffers.
There are a hundred reasons that say annual legislative sessions would serve the common good.
Bekkedahl noted that the state economy was tied to the global commodities market; Sen. Scott Meyer of Grand Forks warned about the volatility of events; Sen. Kristin Roers of Fargo thought the 80-day biennial block slowed candidate recruitment; federal programming requires constant monitoring.
Citizens would be disturbed if they knew that a 50-member interim budget committee of legislators and state finance people had been given the authority to hand out multi-millions of federal money between sessions to fill the 20-month gap between sessions.
In the present rushed system, serious consideration of bills and opportunities for deliberative activity is sacrificed to expediency. Slap it together and fix it in the next session.
The concept of the 80-day legislative session came out of the state Constitutional Convention (1970-72). While the proposed constitution was defeated, the legislature salvaged but never implemented the 80-day idea. We now have it in the state constitution, meaning that legislation is very likely unnecessary.
By rule, the 80 days could be treated as one session, with the Legislature recessing itself until a later day. In fact, it could break the 80 days into a number of sessions by recessing from day to day.
Which would best serve the common good? Legislators tending to state business or legislators sitting on the California beaches? It is a no-brainer.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.