Legislator-citizen gap unhealthy for state

There is an unhealthy gap between the North Dakota legislature and the citizenry. This should not be. Legislators are elected to represent the views of the people.

North Dakota has just gone through a legislative session that veered off course. Governor Douglas Burgum saved the state on a couple of onerous bills that failed to reflect the opinion of the citizenry.

One of his vetoes would have prevented public money from going to parochial schools.

Then there was the measure to provide free school lunches to all children. Under public pressure, the measure was brought back to life and a token sum was appropriated to furnish poor kids with food in a voucher plan. This measure was opposed by at least two-thirds of the people if submitted to a vote.

Doing Good Poorly

Even while doing good the legislature did poorly. Children from poor families must still face the embarrassing task of admitting that they are poor. I suppose they will have to bring their income tax papers to school to prove their poverty. If they are truly poor, they would not be required to report income taxes so they would have no income tax records.

Legislators think they have an open system simply because proceedings can be livestreamed throughout the state. While this may be helpful for retired seniors, it is useless for the working poor who are too busy earning a living to watch the legislature in the middle of the day.

One legislator thought that livestreaming could be interactive with the citizenry but this is a pipe dream. The upper and middle classes may feel comfortable engaging legislators but the lower class is intimidated by public debate. Of course, a legislature consisting of middle and upper classes fails to appreciate the limitations of the lower class.

Enrich School System

If the citizenry could make decisions about the $9 billion Legacy Fund and $2.7 billion carryover, they would vote to spend some of this money to enrich the public school system.

Legislators have no rebuttal to these claims of misrepresentation. The situation smacks of class warfare where the wealthy run off with all of the benefits and the lower class ends up with nothing.

Something must be done to bring the legislature closer to public opinion. The one-party system makes this difficult. If they hold citizen meetings in their districts, they end up with three Republicans who affirm their bad decisions or indecisions.

At one time, North Dakota had a “publicity pamphlet” that went to every taxpayer. It was foolishly abolished to save money at the expense of transparency. This could be resurrected as a post-legislative report on how legislators voted on key issues and sent to every taxpayer.

Advertise Voting Records

If the legislators wanted real transparency, the state could pay for ads in local papers reporting the voting records of their representatives. So what is transparency worth? So what is accountability worth?

North Dakota will have a one-party government for decades so to protect any semblance of democracy it is necessary for a non-legislative entity to guarantee accountability to fill in for a second party.

Back in the districts, if legislators get flack over their ill-advised decisions they crayfish, claiming that they did not know what was in the bill – which is not really true but it’s a convenient escape hatch.

Right now, there is practically no legislative accountability, meaning legislators are free to do what they want. And that’s what they do. That is indisputable. This past session proves it.

When the legislature lacks accountability, we do not have a real democracy.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


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