Legislators have admitted what we’ve been saying for months. They won’t be able to fulfill the promises they made in the last session. It is true events out of our control swept the globe and impacted the state. However, the lack of decisive action is also to blame for these broken promises. Lawmakers had the authority to step up, they didn’t have the will.
“Operation Prairie Dog” was covered at great lengths during the 2019 legislative session. Lawmakers made sure you knew about it with news releases, press conferences, and photo ops. The idea was to take oil and gas revenue and fund infrastructure projects across the state. A lifeline to towns, counties, and other local governments to update old infrastructure. Upgrades that are sorely needed across the state, put off until further notice.
The collapse of this promise is the latest example that how North Dakota budgets is flawed. Much like the infrastructure in towns across the state, how we plan and operate needs upgrades. Maybe we should say we need to “reinvent state government” to get people’s attention?
Events are to blame says the politicians. A global health pandemic brought us to a screeching halt. Businesses shuttered for weeks. Travel was grounded. Unemployment skyrocketed. Judges’ decisions came down. Trade trickled. Legislators aren’t wrong, but they weren’t exactly without options.
When I first floated the need for a special session in March, some lawmakers and officials representing local governments hoped the $1.25 BILLION in CARES Act would help get us through. We now know that allotment and the process used through a six-member commission won’t get the job done.
So what are the options? Where can the debate begin on how to upgrade North Dakota? Here are just a few potential solutions for debate.
By law, lawmakers can only meet 80 days over the two year biennium. Nowhere does it state those 80 days need to happen in one-lump sum every other year. Nothing is preventing the legislature from meeting briefly every year to adjust budgets and change policy. Perhaps a 40-day session every year or any other combination is wiser in these rapidly changing times.
This change would allow for more rapid response from legislators to the needs of the state. Events happen that need a response. It would also reduce the calls for special sessions that are often twisted as being politically motivated.
Reclaim Legislative Authority
Meeting more frequently, the Legislature needs to reclaim its authority. Because of the long gap between sessions, the Legislature has granted too much spending authority in the Executive branch and the Governor. Response to current events underscores this point.
The decisions on how to spend the $1.25 BILLION is currently housed in the six-member emergency commission made up of the Governor, Secretary of State, House and Senate Appropriation Chairs, and Majority Leaders. If you favor open meetings, public hearings, and rigorous debate from legislators to determine where the $1.25 BILLION is spent in the state, this setup is woefully inadequate.
The legislature maintains a final “yes” or “no” on the decisions of that emergency commission in what is called the budget section. No amendments, just a vote to approve or disapprove. Weak. Worse, not every district is represented. Imagine being in a district with a legislator who doesn’t want a seat at the table.
Because of the current way we rely on commodities (oil and ag) to budget, it is difficult to predict revenue and budget for two full years. Budget low and hope to collect more than they planned. Sounds good. What happens when collections come in far below your benchmark? We are experiencing that right now.
If legislators opt to go against meeting more frequently to reclaim their authority, at the very least they should consider contingency budgeting for the biennium. Their budgets impact local government budgets. Create a plan for your priorities at various funding levels. This could reduce the Governor needing to issue across the board cuts regardless of program or priority.
It’s not enough for legislators to throw up their hands and say “we tried!” I don’t accept that. I’m not sure if it is the notion that we have a “part-time” legislature that makes some in that office neglect their duty or if it is the idea of “this is how we’ve always done things.” Times have changed. How we do business and govern needs to change to meet the times. If your legislator isn’t willing to at least discuss how we can upgrade North Dakota’s process, it is time to upgrade your legislator.