Controversy erupts in North Dakota Legislature over who gets to negotiate big bills
Assignments to negotiation committees have prompted an unusually bitter floor debate and a partisan dispute this week.
BISMARCK — With time running out on North Dakota’s legislative session, lawmakers across the political spectrum are ringing alarm bells about the membership of panels assigned to broker deals between the House of Representatives and the Senate.
When the two chambers of the Legislature disagree on the form of a bill, majority leaders appoint three members from each house to reconcile differences in a conference committee.
The makeup of the negotiation committees should reflect both the prevailing and the dissenting positions of each chamber, according to parliamentary procedures.
In two separate situations this week, legislators have alleged that Republican leaders ignored this established practice when picking teams for the panels.
Members of the Legislature’s small Democratic contingent say their exclusion from a committee negotiating a major state agency’s budget is unprecedented and unfair.
Republican leaders say they have the right to appoint an all-GOP conference committee for the Office of Management and Budget’s funding bill, adding that the Democrats’ lack of electoral success is to blame for their absence from the important panel.
The House on Tuesday, April 25, resoundingly rejected the work of a conference committee assigned to debate a crime bill after several Republicans accused powerful colleagues of failing to reflect the broader perspective of the chamber.
Following an unusually bitter floor debate, House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, acknowledged his error in assigning the conference committee and promised to reshape the panel.
Democratic leaders have sat on every conference committee assembled to debate the OMB budget since at least 1997, according to legislative staff.
But this year, the panel features only Republicans: Lefor; Senate Majority Leader David Hogue, of Minot; Reps. Don Vigesaa, of Cooperstown, and Glenn Bosch, of Bismarck; and Sens. Brad Bekkedahl, of Williston, and Terry Wanzek, of Jamestown.
The budget contained in Senate Bill 2015 is generally the final piece of legislation passed by lawmakers before they leave the Capitol.
Rep. Corey Mock, a Grand Forks Democrat and legislative rules expert, referred to the budget as a “Christmas tree” since ideas and appropriations that didn’t fit elsewhere can be affixed to the bill like ornaments.
Freezing opposition voices out of the discussion represents “a complete departure from our basic democratic principles (and) from legislative norms,” Mock said.
“This is the last question (of the session) to make sure that we’re not missing anything, and how can you know if you don’t ask all sides?” Mock said.
He cited a portion of the Legislature’s adopted parliamentary manual, which states that “It is established practice to appoint a majority of the committee from the prevailing side in the controversy, but to also appoint a representative from the minority side.”
The minority viewpoint is not always held or best represented by Democrats, Mock acknowledged. When dissension on a bill primarily exists among Republicans, the members of the conference committee should all come from the majority party, he said.
But the OMB budget is “general government,” and negotiations should be a time for “both recognized leaders to come together and to wrap up the session,” Mock said.
Senate Minority Leader Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said the omission of dissenting voices on the committee is “deeply disturbing,” adding that it could set a bad precedent going forward.
Hogan also noted that the conference committee’s membership features no representation of the eastern edge of the state, where half of its population resides.
It’s “almost impossible” to change the OMB budget after it comes out of the conference committee on the last night of the session, she said.
Hogue said it wouldn’t be right to give Democrats a third of the representation on the negotiation panel when only four of the 47 members of the Senate are in the minority caucus.
“I know they’re disappointed, but they have no right to be,” Hogue said. “I have a duty to be fair to both the majority party and the minority party, and if they have any quarrel, it’s with the people of North Dakota that have not seen fit to give them even 10% representation in the state Senate.”
The Legislature contains fewer members of the minority party than in any year since at least 1957, according to legislative records.
When asked about Democrats’ argument that dissenting voices should be present on the panel, Hogue said, “There’s no time for that,” adding that “I need to be working with my teammates to get out of here.”
Hogue noted that he took the exceptional step of designating Hogan, a member of the opposite party, as the chair of a conference committee on Senate Bill 2026, which provided funding to demolish unused buildings on the State Hospital campus in Jamestown. Hogan said that role is not comparable to having a seat during discussions about the OMB budget.
Lefor said the omission of Democratic leadership from the committee is “not intended as a slight,” adding that he has great respect for House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo.
When asked about the break from precedence, Lefor said he’s “not focused on the past” and he’s most comfortable working with fellow House Republican leaders on the budget.
Lefor said the Republican House and Senate negotiators still will fully vet the bill through robust discussion.
'That’s my mistake'
Animosity flared in the House on Tuesday night when Republican lawmakers sparred over the membership of a House-Senate panel that handled a bill to impose tougher penalties for violent gun crimes and offenses against police.
Several House Judiciary Committee members blasted the chairman’s handling of Senate Bill 2107, the attorney general’s involvement in the legislation, and how the bill’s conference committee didn’t represent the majority view.
Attorney General Drew Wrigley introduced the bill to the Legislature. Rep. Landon Bahl, R-Grand Forks, knocked Wrigley for “overstepping his role and now appearing to be making policy and having heavy and unfair influence within our legislative body” on the bill.
Bahl also criticized Judiciary Chairman Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, for recommending conference committee panel members “who supported the minority position in committee,” including Klemin himself, returning the bill “largely to the form that mirrored the attorney general’s version.”
“This is not good legislation, nor is this how legislation should arrive to this floor,” Bahl told the House.
Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, told the House he has been “incredibly frustrated with the process.”
“My respect for some people has plummeted. I thought it was at bottom, but it’s almost like it grabbed a shovel and started digging further,” he said, looking in Klemin’s direction. Satrom confirmed his comment was directed at Klemin.
Klemin said comments in the floor session were personal and “quite unwarranted.” He said he was “really disturbed about the many derogatory comments that were made about the attorney general, which I thought were untrue.”
Wrigley said Bahl’s comments don’t “really register as important to me in the context of all of this.”
Klemin said the conference committee comprised “people who were put on there in accordance with the rules that we have.”
Lefor, the majority leader, acknowledged “the buck stops with me, and the conferees should have been different. That’s my mistake.”
The House subsequently defeated the conference committee report, 5-85, sending the bill back to negotiations.
The new conference committee appointed by Lefor amended the bill into a study of state laws that prohibit certain people from owning guns, which the Senate approved, 44-2, on Thursday, sending it to the House.
Jeremy Turley is a reporter for Forum News Service. Jack Dura is a reporter for The Bismarck Tribune.