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North Dakota has a huge public square

Many states claim to be different, but of all of the states, North Dakota has the distinction of having the flattest power structure. Power is distributed thinly because everybody must have “a say.” Egalitarianism runs to the point of becoming sinful.

First, our institutional makeup is evidence of our egalitarian public square.

We have more elected officials per capita than any other state, with twice as many elected officials than any other state except South Carolina. We have over 10 while most states average around five.

The ballot looked so cumbersome that the Legislature proposed and the people approved splitting the state officials into two groups, with five being elected every two years instead of all in one election.

We have more state legislators per capita than all other states except New Hampshire where 400 house members function in a theater-like chamber.

It has been proposed lately that North Dakota needs to get its legislators closer to the people, perhaps by increasing the size of the Senate from 47 to the constitutional limit of 54. That would also increase the number of representatives from 97 to 108.

As good of an improvement would be dividing Senate districts in half, with one House member elected from each half. That would bring House members much closer to the people.

An even better improvement would be going to a one-house system with each member elected by a single district.

Not only would this bring legislators closer to their constituents but it would abolish the greatest evil in the bicameral system – conference committees consisting of three members from each house meeting to reconcile differences on bills.

The last session of the Legislature magnified the dimensions of this evil. In a conference committee, Rep. Keith Kempenich of Bowman slipped language into a bill to choke the state auditor’s authority to conduct performance audits without legislative approval.

The amendment turned into a hot potato in which the legislative leadership had to crayfish on responsibility for the action. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson confessed that “the Legislature as a whole did not weigh in on that.”

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert of Carrington said that “the amendment goes a little farther than what it should.” Even Kempenich admitted that the amendment was harsher than he intended.

The whole saga was a sad commentary on legislative competence and discredited the legitimacy of conference committees.

Nebraska has had a unicameral legislature since 1937, eliminating the need for conference committees. It now has 49 senators and the speaker has proposed that they increase the chamber to 55.

With 40 senators and 80 representatives, the California legislature manages a state of 35 million with fewer legislators than North Dakota. In fact, the California senate districts are larger than the congressional districts

We see egalitarianism in our processes as well. Our statutes are full of requirements for public hearings to give citizens the opportunity to express their opinions. However, few citizens appear.

When the proposal is ready for action, someone belatedly raises the issue of public input. Unless homage has been paid to public input, the proposal is doomed so go straight back to jail until that is done. It’s process over substance, an egalitarian mandate.

In recent years, some politically-oriented legislators have proposed that local officials be elected with party identification. North Dakota is one of the few states that elects county and city officials on a nonpartisan basis, a system that welcomes participation by people who want to serve but have no interest in partisan politics.

The power of the people to propose and pass statutes and constitutional amendments confirms our commitment to create a flat power structure in which the people could run the state anytime they wished.

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