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Lloyd Omdahl: Does the Legislature deserve term limits?

The ballot measure raises this question: Has the legislature become so out of step with the people that it needs an institutional makeover?

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl
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The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the decision of Secretary of State Al Jaeger to throw out signatures filed to create term limits for the governor and members of the state legislature.

The Secretary of State apparently made an error in judgment – an error that could have some impact on the makeup of the legislature. Nevertheless, Al Jaeger continues to be a person of integrity and should not be judged harshly for this error.

First of all, the measure is quite generous for those now sitting. All of the present legislators will be "grandfathered" in, meaning that all of the present legislators would have unlimited terms ahead of them. Only new legislators will be affected by the 8-year limit. So the measure will not have a major impact on the makeup of the legislature for years.

The ballot measure raises this question: Has the legislature become so out of step with the people that it needs an institutional makeover?

There is no doubt that the legislature has isolated itself from the influence of the people. By sticking to the biennial 80-day continuous session, it has crammed state business into as short a time as possible, making it difficult for a rational consideration of bills and for citizen input. Having served on the 1972 Constitutional Convention legislative subcommittee, it was our thought that the 80 days would be spread over several short sessions.

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Ever since the initiative and referendum have been added to our state constitution, the legislature has waged an endless war against the process by regularly proposing restrictions that would make use of these citizen methods difficult. The legislature is very jealous of its jurisdiction and doesn't want citizens to be fooling around with it.

Because the Republican Party no longer has an effective political opposition, the legislature has embarked on a policy of giveaways without regard to pressing needs in health, poverty, education and families.

The legislature has been giving tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest of citizens. Our income tax is practically nothing, but that is the tax that will be cut again. No thought has been given to cutting the regressive sales tax that falls most heavily on low income citizens.

Instead of cutting taxes for the wealthy, we should be guaranteeing all children an equal opportunity in life by offering them a superior education. Right now, the legislature seems to be happy with a mediocre system. Many kids need extra tutoring. Teachers need professional raises, considering all of the new demands being imposed on them.

The cost of medication is outrageous and, in spite of all the federal programs, people are dying because they cannot afford preventive care. But then almost all of the legislators get free health coverage in the state plan so they can't relate to this problem.

Then there's the $8,000,000,000 stashed away for a rainy day. Well, the rainy day is here. We don't need to be a mediocre state. The present generation is entitled to a share of that money to raise the quality of life for all of the people of North Dakota and not just those who are getting the tax breaks.

Those who oppose term limits make several points. First, they claim that we will lose the benefit of institutional knowledge. Considering the legislature's track record, perhaps we would be better off without institutional knowledge.

Then there are those who claim that term limits would hand the ball to the bureaucrats and lobbyists. Let us not kid ourselves. Legislators already have cozy relationships with the agency people and lobbyists – especially the long-term lobbyists who help finance legislative races.

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All of this may sound like calling for a "yes" vote on the measure. Not so. The measure will have such a limited impact on the behavior of the legislature that it doesn't make any difference whether it passes or fails.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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