Herald columnist Mike Jacobs last week raised a common-sense idea that could help the state better plan and react to economic hardships and downturns. The North Dakota Legislature, he opined, should drop its biennial approach and conduct annual sessions instead.
“The idea of annual sessions of the Legislature has been raised more than once – but never at a time when swift legislative action is so critical as it is now,” wrote Jacobs. “An 18-month-long gap between sessions is far too long, as the COVID emergency has proven.”
Discussions about annual sessions generally correspond to the ebb and flow of the state’s finances. The chief concern: As a state that relies heavily on commodities – oil and agriculture, specifically – North Dakota’s budget can easily fall victim to wild market swings. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example.
And since 46 states meet annually– only North Dakota, Texas, Montana and Nevada meet every two years – it seems a logical discussion.
Republican leaders in the Legislature aren’t so sure.
During a meeting last week with the Herald’s editorial board, Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, and Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, neither seemed in favor of changing the state’s legislative schedule.
Upon being asked, Pollert politely asked back: “Do you want a citizen legislature or do you want to go to more of a full-time legislature, like Minnesota has? It’s a voter’s decision, if that is what they want.”
Wardner said there are safeguards in place that help alleviate crises during the legislators’ absence.
“We are set up more than people think,” he said. “If (the budget) goes below forecast and we run short of money, (the governor) automatically can cut the budget by 3%.”
Between the governor’s cutting ability, the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund and the state’s Emergency Commission, North Dakota is well positioned during a financial crisis, Wardner said.
One issue that Wardner acknowledges: Democrats are not, at present, represented on the Emergency Commission, which has certain budgetary abilities during crises.
Jacobs last week called the Emergency Commission “a cozy little group” and said it is hardly representative of the entire state.
“They are all men, for one thing. And in North Dakota, they are all Republicans: the governor, secretary of state, chairs of the Senate and House appropriations committees and the majority leaders of each house.”
Said Wardner: “We can be criticized for that.”
But Wardner also stressed that the safeguards that exist show the state is neither unprepared nor unable to quickly react to budgetary swings.
“There is a plan,” Wardner said.
Sound arguments all. But such heavy reliance on commodity markets means North Dakota should strongly consider changing to annual sessions, rather than its current format of an 80-day session every two years.
It wouldn’t adversely affect the body’s status as a citizen legislature. South Dakota, like North Dakota, relies heavily on agriculture, but its other chief economic driver is tourism, which doesn’t have the volatility of oil and gas. Yet that state – with a similar population to North Dakota – has annual legislative sessions, meeting for 40 days one year and 35 the next.
North Dakota should do the same.