Day 71: Why is the Legislature Still in Session?

Day 71 of the 80 day legislative session starts today. You may recall hearing House Majority Leader Al Carlson and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner state they wanted to finish on day 70. Just as they’ve done in the previous two sessions, they failed to achieve their self-imposed deadline even though they “control the flow of bills.” Let’s break down a couple of the reasons legislators are still in Bismarck.

Over $500 Million Budget Gap

As of last Friday, the budget was $595,476,415 short of balancing. They’ve had two full legislative days to cut into that difference. Undoubtedly, large budgets are still being hammered out in back rooms of the Capitol. In previous public comments, Rep. Al Carlson stated those figures, the official public numbers available by the nonpartisan Legislative Council, were wrong. More like $55 to $60 million according to Carlson. In other words, Carlson and his inner circle have been chopping apart budgets in the smoke filled rooms away from the public.

It’s not just Carlson keeping this secret from you. Senator Rich Wardner is equally to blame for the secrecy. Here is what he told Nick Smith of the Bismarck Tribune, “Believe it or not, we have two or three options,” Wardner said of balancing the books, though he didn’t disclose specifics.

Close to $600 million by official accounts need to be accounted for and you’re not letting the public see it? Is it because they know what they are about to do won’t be well received, and the situation more dire than what they’re letting on, that they want to be doing 80 mph on the 75 mph interstate rushing out of Bismarck before you find out? While they’re cutting deep into programs, transferring and eliminating funds, and dramatically changing funding formulas, they’re purposefully keeping you in the dark.


Micromanagement by Al Carlson

Conference Committee time is when the micromanagement in the ND House clearly presents itself. The “need” for House members to “run everything upstairs” before making a decision draws out the process and consumes time. I’ve witnessed it first hand. Here is a little story from the last session to demonstrate how it works. A conference committee was formed to create new services for people with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). All six of us conferees agreed with the compromise in the committee, but the Chair wouldn’t call for a vote until he “ran it upstairs” to Carlson. We met no less than ten times, and the House was “forced” to go with a figure Carlson arbitrarily set at his desk and completely stripped the authority of the House members to act for themselves.

The word I’ve heard from legislators of both parties is this practice is being fully utilized in these final weeks. The leadership will make public comments where they act as cheerleaders for their colleagues, but behind closed doors, at least in the House, they are kept on a tight leash. There needs to be more of a delegation of authority instead of bottle-necking it with one individual. Did you know you may have been electing someone to serve Rep. Carlson’s wishes and not necessarily yours?

Games and Distractions

Distractions pop up in every session often brought forward by ideology, political ambition, or because an outside special interest group like ALEC drew it up. “Pornographic Vending Machines,” state-owned casinos, guns in schools, and drug testing single mothers in need of temporary assistance are a few examples of distractions that took away from focusing on addressing behavioral health and the budget.

Games are also played to show legislative strength. Sneaking a ban on wind farms for two years. Pushing an amendment riddled with conflicts of interest that used 250 nursing students to force a renegotiation in contract. Changing the makeup of the Public Employees and Retirement System through an 80 plus page amendment without a public hearing. All of these are an example of games played to increase the legislature’s role in the state. None of them received the standalone public hearing they deserved. There are many more examples. All of them took time once exposed and prolonged the session.


The Legislature is still in session because of legislative mismanagement. A recurrence of sessions past. The early determination to stay focused on the real challenges before them often wane into power hungry motives in the isolated atmosphere of the legislative session. Frustrations that have boiled over for the year and a half they’re not in session must go addressed no matter how petty. They have to cram vendettas into 80 days.

It is a shame that it is a handful of legislative members that bring the process to a crawl. Others like Judy Lee, Dave Oehlke, Tim Mathern, and Jim Dotzenrod in the Senate, and Dick Anderson, Andy Maragos, Kathy Hogan, and Rick Holman among many, many others are out there working their asses off. They have a family and other careers to get back to. However, until someone stands up to the leadership elected among themselves and says we can manage this process better, expect to see a continuation of these drawn legislative sessions.

Tyler Axness
Latest posts by Tyler Axness (see all)