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Lloyd Omdahl: Unicameral approach better than term limits

Term limits would not be the silver bullet to end discontent with the policymaking system. Term limits are relatively undemocratic in that term limits tell the voters that they don’t know enough to decide whether or not they ought to keep electing those holding office.

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl
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The citizens are restless. They seem to be frustrated with the failure of government to respond or interact with the voters and are looking for options to loosen up the system.

Jared Hendrix, GOP Chair of a legislative district in the Minot area, filed a petition with 46,366 signatures to limit the terms of governors and legislators, but Secretary State Al Jaeger threw out 29,101, leaving the petitions short of the 31,164 required to get on the ballot.

The Secretary of State claimed that “suspected” signatures were forged, and on the basis of being suspected, they were dismissed. Also, petitioners were paid by the signature, illegal because the legislature wanted to make it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative and referendum.

Public alienated

Because of the alienation of the legislature from the public, there is little doubt that the term limits proposal would have been approved by the voters if it had been on the ballot.

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Term limits would not be the silver bullet to end discontent with the policymaking system. Term limits are relatively undemocratic in that term limits tell the voters that they don’t know enough to decide whether or not they ought to keep electing those holding office.

One-House Legislature

Adopting a one-house legislature would go a long way to re-establish voter confidence in the state legislature.

Having spent many years interacting with the legislature, presiding in the state senate, and watching the operation of the Nebraska unicameral, I feel that a simpler system would be welcomed by the citizenry if North Dakota ever adopted a unicameral system.

With 70 members in one house, each elected individually from a single district, the legislature would be more transparent. In the two-house system, the legislators are always gaming the system to confuse accountability or avoid responsibility for their actions. There is too much buck-passing in the bicameral system.

Two houses doing same thing

Nebraska U. S. Senator George Norris, champion of the unicameral, argued that there was “no sense in having the same thing done twice if it is to be done by two bodies elected in the same way and having the same jurisdiction.”

The two-house system makes it difficult for participation in the legislative process because the two-house system makes it necessary for citizens to travel to Bismarck at least twice to monitor or support bills. That is costly and inconvenient, forcing many citizens to hire lobbyists to protect their interests.

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It shouldn’t require almost 150 legislators to make state policy. All states – except New Hampshire – have smaller legislatures than North Dakota. Nebraska has continued to function for almost 100 years under a unicameral and it has continued to pass good legislation.

Nebraska people smarter?

Are we to assume that the people in Nebraska are smarter than those in North Dakota so we must have an army of legislators looking over each other’s shoulders for bad bills? Well, the North Dakota legislature has passed bad bills with two houses and much of the time in each session is spent correcting the errors of past legislatures. Besides, we have governors to veto the bad bills.

The unicameral’s first clerk, Hugo Srb, predicted that the lawmakers of other states would be unlikely to legislate their jobs out of existence. He was right and that is the reason states have not been able to look at a unicameral. To a person, members of the legislature would oppose a unicameral.

Another reason change becomes impossible is that no one would benefit financially from the change except the state. A public education campaign would cost at least $1 million. Who would put up that kind of money without some gain?

Jared, this is just another option to look at.

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

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