Legislators return to the North Dakota Capitol today, Wednesday, March 3, after their mid-session break, known as Crossover. This pause allows a preliminary assessment of the 2021 session, the state’s 67th.
Of course, the important part of the session, the negotiation and deal making, lies ahead. Still, it is possible to observe that so far this has been among the most reactionary in the state’s history.
The label is not meant pejoratively or judgmentally, but rather descriptively. The word does catch the tone of the session. Time after time, lawmakers have pushed back against the governor particularly, but also against existing laws and sometimes against each other.
The latter is the most obvious right now. A Republican House member from Dickinson is accused of sexual harassment, and the charges are serious enough that party leaders have asked him to resign or face expulsion. This may not be unprecedented, but it is surely rare. Previous legislators have been censured, and at least a few have been refused their seats. But expelled? Not in my memory, which encompasses half a century of close watching.
Likely the matter will be settled within a few days, perhaps as early as today. The fallout is another matter. The member accused, Luke Simons, was first elected in 2016 and quickly became one of the boldest of the Bastiats, a caucus of rightists. Simons’ actions will discredit the caucus just as it has embarrassed the party leadership. Party regulars tried to deny him re-nomination in 2020, but they failed.
Gov. Doug Burgum has been another target of legislative reaction, though for other reasons. Last week the Senate rejected the governor’s suggestion that the funding formula for the state’s colleges and universities should be cut by 7.5%. Instead, they passed the “hold harmless” budget presented by the state Board of Higher Education. Across the hall, House members cut the governor’s bonding recommendation nearly in half, from Burgum’s $1.1 billion to $680 million.
This suggests a round of hard bargaining between the Senate, historically more generous with state spending, and the House, traditionally tighter with the state’s money even when there’s a lot of it around. The Appropriations Committee in the House is chaired by Jeff Delzer, the man Burgum target for defeat – but who returned to the House following a bizarre path that included a funeral and a state Supreme Court ruling.
Lawmakers have pushed their power in other ways, including reining in the state auditor by scheduling more frequent meetings of an oversight committee. There were bills to change how the state health officer is chosen, a hot-seat position given the COVID pandemic. These included a suggestion that the position be elective, an idea that was rejected. The House did pass a bill prohibiting state and local government mandates, though. Rep. Simons’ outburst when another legislator asked that he wear a mask was the immediate cause for his current trouble, although there’s a file of other allegations.
Then there are the “pushbacks” and “prohibitions.” The list is a long one, and what follows is not exhaustive.
This time around the Senate passed a resolution rescinding the state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Last session the Senate defeated a House resolution that did the same thing.
The House passed a bill limiting the rights of transgender student who want to play on sports teams in public schools. Other “moral” issues arose, including breast feeding and displaying the Ten Commandments in school classrooms.
A bill to allow and restrict recreational marijuana passed the House. Emphasis here is on “restrict,” as I argued in last week’s column. Rather than allowing marijuana use, lawmakers are interested in keeping it highly regulated and hard to get. This is an effort to head off potential petition campaigns making “pot” more widely available.
On the other hand, the state’s gun laws would be relaxed under legislation passed by the House. The state’s “stand your ground” law and “conceal and carry” laws would be loosed.
Then there are the election laws. A dozen and a half bills governing ballot language, polling stations and partisan designation rights were introduced and on and on. Most of these originated in the House; the Senate will have a chance to thin the soup. Still, it’s likely that voting will become more difficult rather than easier once the session adjourns.
In one way, lawmakers have been innovative. They agreed to annual sessions – but their innate reluctance showed even there. There will be a session in 2022, as it stands now, but it’s an experiment meant to react to the current crisis – not COVID, but tax collections.
That decision means an early end to the session. The state constitution provides for an 80-day session, but lawmakers themselves determine how the time will be used. The upshot is that this year lawmakers will have to finish quickly in order to have days available next year for their first “annual” session.
In contrast to past sessions, I’m watching this one from afar. Personal circumstances – plus the pandemic – keep me close to home. I’m observing the Legislature via the state government’s websites, which is comprehensive, and the Capitol press corps.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.