Without term limits, North Dakota’s Legislature is a powerful force. Gov. Doug Burgum apparently learned that during his first term in office and seems to be pushing his own form of a term limit initiative via large contributions to a political action committee, aimed in part at forcing a fellow Republican from a legislative seat he has held since the 1990s.
Herald columnist Mike Jacobs, Forum Communications columnist Rob Port and a recent Forum News Service story all have noted what appears to be a feud between Burgum and state Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood. Delzer is up for reelection, and Burgum has spent considerable money through a PAC that’s focused on ousting Delzer and a handful of other Republicans.
If not unique, it’s certainly interesting – startling, to some – to see a sitting governor take such an interest in legislative elections. And here’s the kicker: The governor has given the PAC some $875,000 out of his own pocket, drawing concern even from Republicans that he is dabbling too deeply and potentially causing irreconcilable rifts within the state GOP.
Back to term limits and North Dakota’s Legislature. Without some sort of limit on lawmakers’ length of stay in the governing body, legislatures can grow enough influence to essentially bypass a governor’s input or initiatives. In North Dakota, some longtime state lawmakers thus acquire more influence even than our elected top executive.
Delzer, for instance, was first elected in 1992 and, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wields considerable influence in the Legislature. At times, that influence supersedes the governor’s power.
In states that have term limits, that’s less likely to happen.
Fifteen states now have legislative term limits, including North Dakota neighbors Montana and South Dakota, both of which have fewer than a million residents. Former Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote that South Dakota is so sparsely populated that “merely by entering it, you automatically become a member of the Legislature.”
And that’s the problem with term limits. Sparsely populated states that enact them potentially doom themselves to inexperienced lawmakers and a complete loss of historic and institutional knowledge.
In some places, there just may not be enough strong candidates to go around every eight years.
And so in places like North Dakota, where one-party dominance is the norm, lawmakers as a group have considerable power. It leads to the situation we see with Burgum – a Republican, but a newcomer to politics who came into office with big, perhaps nontraditional, ideas – openly endorsing one Republican over another and donating large amounts of money in hopes of seeing certain party members defeated in the June primary.
Burgum isn’t doing anything illegal, nor should he face any particular scorn for doing it. He’s simply playing the political system that exists and using his own fortune in an effort to create a government that he can more easily work with for what likely will be a second term in office. Without a workable Legislature, Burgum’s influence, and potential legacy, is diminished.
We don’t see any particular need for term limits in North Dakota’s Legislature. But without them, this is the political environment North Dakotans have chosen.