After 40 years of reporting and editorializing about the North Dakota Legislature, I am qualified to assess the just-closed 2019 session. I give the assembly an overall grade of C minus. Indeed, there were a few bright spots that merit an A minus or a B plus, but precious few. Therefore, the scale tips toward the low end because of a couple of overweight Fs, and a troubling trend of power-grabbing that isn’t new, but accelerated this year.
The stumble-bum path to implementing Measure 1, the ethics commission mandate, exposed lawmakers’ pique that voters had the audacity to demand accountability and transparency from elected officials and the lobbyists who influence legislation. How dare anyone question their alleged squeaky clean behavior. So what did the legislative majority do? First, the task of crafting legislation to conform to the voters’ directive was left in part to a House committee chairman who is — to put it charitably — ethically challenged. The Senate bill was better, but was weakened by the House committee and the full House. The final compromise moved tentatively in the right direction, but pretty much told voters to go suck eggs.
Further revealing lawmakers’ disdain for voters, the majority pushed ballot measures that, if passed, will hamstring the cherished right to initiate changes to the state constitution. The measures likely will not pass, but the fact lawmakers want to make it more difficult to get a measure on the ballot — and then subject a cleared initiative to legislative review and veto — suggests the touted “citizen” Legislature has morphed into an insular legislators Legislature.
In another indication of the lust for more government power in Bismarck, lawmakers eroded local autonomy. They prohibited cities from banning plastic bags, which are so ubiquitous on the landscape they qualify as a new state flag. They said cities cannot raise the minimum wage, thus assuming they know more about the labor market in individual cities than do elected local officials and business people. They blocked police firearms buybacks, a program that most local law enforcement finds efficacious. They required local governments to justify setbacks for animal feedlots, a capitulation to the lobbying of mostly out-of-state, factory-type, potentially polluting hog confinement operations.
A session could not go by without myopic lawmakers passing abortion bills that epitomize the intrusive intent of government to interfere with the relationship between a woman and her doctor.
On the plus side, lawmakers advanced the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum at Medora. It got done by a Rube Goldberg funding stunt with the Bank of North Dakota, rather than an unencumbered Legacy Fund appropriation. Silly, but that’s the best a routinely visionless Legislature can do.
The Sunday blue law is history. I once was a cheerleader for ending the law. Not so sure, anymore. The distinctive status of Sunday in lore, culture and family life has been sacrificed to pandemic mercantilism. Even in song, Sunday is special: “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” - Kris Kristofferson; “That Sunday, That Summer” - Nat King Cole; “A Sunday Kind of Love” - Etta James; “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” - Commodores.
Well, it’s a topic for another column.