North Dakota Legislature vs. The People

udging the bills that are introduced biennially, it appears that the North Dakota Legislature has a running war with the people. In that respect, this session is no exception.

In November, just three months ago, the people adopted a constitutional amendment creating an ethics commission and making several changes to detect and monitor corrupt activities in state government.

One bill, introduced by Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, was developed to honor the wishes of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, sponsors of the measure. His bill was an honest effort to respond to the wishes and intent of the voters.

In response, the legislative floor leaders introduced their own bill to make the constitutional amendment unworkable. North Dakotans for Public Integrity condemned the bill (HB 1521) for restricting transparency and imposing minor penalties while failing to adequately fund the ethics commission.

Because this was introduced by the legislative leadership, we have to assume that it was the Legislature’s defiant response to the people. They don’t want anyone looking at their ethics, meaning that questionable activities of lobbyists and improper campaign contributions will not be pursued.

Because North Dakota is a small state, familiarity threatens objectivity. Legislatures make good friends with lobbyists and think in terms of doing something for their friends without thinking of it as corruption. Legislative corruption usually occurs in cozy relationships among friends and demands monitoring.

In another move against the people, the Legislature is looking at a bill proposed to strip the people of their right to initiate constitutional measures by requiring the prior approval of the Legislature. We settled that question over a hundred years ago.

In 1913, the Legislature proposed the initiating of constitutional amendments but required approval of the Legislature before they could go into effect. In 1914, the people approved the proposal.

But it proved unworkable. So in 1918 the people filed a petition to remove the Legislature from the process. This measure was approved by a substantial margin.

Even since the initiative and referendum processes were adopted, the Legislature has demonstrated its contempt for the direct participation of the people.

They argue that the people don’t know enough about the measures. Well, if we are content with a “citizen legislature” making laws in Bismarck then we are hard-pressed to argue that citizens proposing initiative measures back home are incompetent. It begs the question.

The Legislature bottles up good proposals until they finally burst forth in the form of initiated measures that take the issues out of its hands. The Legislature stonewalled medical marijuana for several sessions before an initiative measure was passed by the people. The Legislature stonewalled the ethics commission until the people finally took charge.

There are other issues that the Legislature refuses to consider. The legislative measure to raise the cigarette tax has been defeated again, the annual death of 1,000 North Dakotas notwithstanding. That issue will come back to haunt the Legislature. Citizen petitioning is still needed.

With the completion of the 2020 census, the Legislature will be chopping the state into legislative districts, not with an eye on getting fair representation for the people but with protecting the incumbents and the “good old boys.” During the current decade, five legislative districts failed the constitutionality test of compactness. Another case of legislative abuse of the people.

Without James Madison, there would have been no U.S. Constitution. His keen insight brought him to a clear understanding of the principles of government. When it came to legislatures, he observed in Federalist No. 48 that “the legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

We see this as a reality in every legislative session.

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