From thought to law: How legislation is created in North Dakota

Staff at the nonpartisan Legislative Council work with legislators to draft legislation, including model legislation proposed by various public and private interests. Bilal Suleiman / North Dakota Newspaper Association
Staff at the nonpartisan Legislative Council work with legislators to draft legislation, including model legislation proposed by various public and private interests. Bilal Suleiman / North Dakota Newspaper Association

BISMARCK — Every session, members of the North Dakota Legislature vote on hundreds of bills. Some are a simple half page, while others run 10, 20 or 30 pages and address multiple parts of the Century Code.

With a year-and-a-half to prepare between biennial sessions, legislators receive help from multiple entities in drafting laws, and one that has a large influence in North Dakota is the Uniform Law Commission.

To date, North Dakota has enacted 178 uniform laws drafted by the commission — more than any other state. While the commission has existed since 1892 as a way for state government delegates to get together to discuss public policy, it wasn’t until the 1980s when the legislature codified North Dakota’s involvement, designating how many representatives would go to the commission’s yearly meeting and from what offices.

At the last meeting, House Speaker Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, and Sen. David Hogue, R- Minot, represented the Legislature, along with 10 others appointed by the governor and attorney general.

According to Gail Hagerty, a Burleigh County district court judge and member of the commission since 1994, the areas the commission weighs in on are usually “highly technical” and there is “more expertise available when you’re drafting on a national level.”

At the same time, Hagerty said she sees the Uniform Law Commission as being a pro-states rights effort.

“It is state legislation that is governing in a lot of areas rather than federal legislation,” Hagerty said. She said legislation that is drafted by the commission can be more easily tailored to the needs of the states and doesn’t have the same sweeping implications of federal action.

Jennifer Clark, a legislative appointee to the commission who works for the North Dakota Legislative Council, said there are many benefits to having uniform legislation across state lines on certain issues.

“If we can make the application of law seamless between us and our neighboring states, it helps to not set us apart,” Clark said. “It makes for a consumer friendly and business friendly environment when you can anticipate what the laws are going to be.”

Although she said many uniform laws focused on commerce and technical areas, Clark said they do work on more “high profile” legislation. This session, Clark said she worked on legislation about prosecuting so-called "revenge porn," or leaking intimate images of a person online without their permission. She also worked on legislation outlining parental rights, which she said is pertinent to separated parents living in different states, or even across the border into Canada.

Other methods

One way for lawmakers to produce legislation is to work from what is known as “model legislation" produced by think tanks, lobbying groups and others.

A recent two-year investigation by USA Today found that in the past eight years, at least 10,000 bills “almost entirely copied from model legislation” were introduced across the nation and 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.

In the study, North Dakota was found to have relatively low rates of model legislation compared to most other states, but John Bjornson, executive director of Legislative Council, said they do work regularly with model legislation.

“Legislators will on occasion bring us legislation that I suspect is from an organization like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) or other groups – could just be an advocacy group of some sort,” Bjornson said. “We do our best to make it conform to our drafting style and fit into the structure of our code.”

Legislative Council in North Dakota, Bjornson said, is unique because it is both nonpartisan and works for both the House and Senate.

“We are small, working for everybody,” Bjornson said. “It’s hard to spread staff so one person works in a particular subject area and she might work on a bill for a Senate Republican and a House Democrat on the same subject.”

Bjornson said that while Legislative Council can draft bills wholesale, the fact that legislators are part time in North Dakota, which is not true in every state, means lawmakers might need to rely on outside organizations more regularly for legislative inspiration.

“We’ve had a lot of legislators that are engaged with outside groups to seek input in part because they’re not professional legislators,” Bjornson said.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, is known as one of the more prolific lawmakers in the Capitol. In this session alone, he has been the primary sponsor on 11 bills and introduced 80 altogether. Becker said his bills have “run the gamut” in terms of origin.

Some, he said, he has written 100% himself, and some have been inspired by legislation from think tanks or other groups. Most often, Becker said, legislation he introduces is modeled on legislation that has been enacted in other states.

Becker said juggling being a lawmaker and having a full-time job can be difficult. “Before you know it, it’s three or four months before the session,” he said.

Bjornson knows how he feels. Having a biennial session can give Legislative Council more off time to research topics, but it’s balanced by having such a dense 80-day session in which to amend bills.

“We’ll probably draft the first bill for the next session as soon as our system updates,” Bjornson said. “My guess is somebody’s probably already asked for it and we’re just getting ready for the new biennium.”