Culture of Intimidation (Part 3: Lawmakers)

The most baffling group of decision makers who succumb to intimidation are the lawmakers themselves. It doesn’t come from the voters either; it is from their ranks in the Capitol. Legislators tend to forget that it is the people of their district, constituents, who are their boss, not some person they elect as their caucus leader. Because they forget these basics when they get to Bismarck, questionable decisions are made that negatively impact the greater good of the state.

I’ve already written about the legislature’s refusal to allow any changes to the 2016 special session budget bill. I want to emphasize it was because of intimidation. In one of the first posts on ND xPlains (linked above), I shared a colorful comment Sen. Ray Holmberg told me after the debate was over. To summarize, no changes could be made in their opinion because they didn’t want to upset the House.

It wasn’t just Sen. Holmberg that saw how this budget bill could be improved, though. Others on the Senate side quietly acknowledged as much behind the brass rail. I remember Sen. Robert Erbele struggling to vote “no” on the nursing home amendment offered by Sen. Tim Mathern. He said as much to Sen. Joan Heckaman after the vote. I remember the hanging heads; eyes focused down at their desk when the vote was tallied to deny the transfer of dollars to help children with disabilities or people struggling with addiction. Good people whom I’ve come to consider friends in the majority voting against their conscience. Why? Because they were too damn afraid to upset the other chamber and its leadership. Culture of intimidation.

Another moment this culture was on display occurred during a conference committee I sat on. If you are unfamiliar, conference committees occur to hash out the differences in the versions of bills passed by both chambers. Typically, the committees are made up of three members from both the House and Senate. This conference committee was to resolve the level of funding for services to people with a traumatic brain injury. Specifically, services to help individuals get back to work and regain their independence. We met almost two dozen times to debate $25,000. It required that many meetings not because the committee members themselves disagreed, but because the House members needed to get the blessing of their leadership, Rep. Jeff Delzer, and Rep. Al Carlson. That blessing never came, and each time we entered the room you could see the growing frustration on Rep. Dick Anderson’s face. Rep. Anderson is a good, kind-hearted man who cares deeply about these services. As Chair, Anderson wanted to go along with committee’s compromise but knew if we did, the House under Carlson’s lead, would defeat the entire bill. Out of intimidation, the members appeased Carlson.

These are but two of the many examples I could give. Why these two? Because they show how the intimidation that resides in our system impacts the most vulnerable among us. Those that rely on leaders to stand up for them because they may not be able to stand for themselves are silenced.

Tomorrow the 65th Legislative Session begins. Lawmakers, including dozens of new members, will be forced to make tough decisions with smaller revenues. Cuts are coming. The “old guard” in the Legislature has allowed fear and intimidation to drive decision making. I’m not confident it won’t be exerted even more on the new members. My advice to them is to remember their boss is not their party leadership; it is the residents in their district. If they keep that in mind, they can accomplish some good.

This is the last posting in the series focused on intimidation. I hope it has given you a glimpse as to why some questionable decisions are made in Bismarck. As always, if you think there are groups we missed let us know. Tomorrow, we transition our focus to the legislative session. We’ll be your source here at ND xPlains to break it all down and point out when this culture arises.

Culture of Intimidation (Part 1: Lobbyists)

Culture of Intimidation (Part 2: State Agencies)

Tyler Axness
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