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Jack Zaleski column: 'Good job' was not good enough

Conclusions about the work of the 2003 North Dakota Legislature are all over the map. They are defined primarily by political persuasion, age, economic comfort and apathy.

Conclusions about the work of the 2003 North Dakota Legislature are all over the map. They are defined primarily by political persuasion, age, economic comfort and apathy.

One at a time.

Republicans -- most notably the majority of the Republican caucus in the Legislature -- are proud of their work. No joke. They think they did a good job.

And in fairness, they did -- as far as it went. They did very little that was new or bold. They balanced the budget (it's the law). They did not raise taxes -- an ideological blunder that will bite them in the butt in 2005. They found some common ground with Gov. John Hoeven's sensible initiatives, but in the end merely tinkered with the status quo, rather than thinking beyond the biennial cycle.

Democrats? Their caucus is so small it can meet in a closet. They railed and ranted and even made a few good proposals. But they waited until the eleventh hour to extend a reluctant hand to the governor, knowing full well that the Republican majority would not accommodate new bills in a hurried special session.

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Age is a factor most legislators don't understand. Most of them are middle-aged white guys (like me) who are so locked into a political straitjacket that original thinking is anathema.

Young people understand symbolism. They saw a Legislature that insulted their intelligence and values by keeping in place a symbolic, but outrageous, invasion of privacy: the cohabitation law. They understood the hypocrisy of conservatives using government to interfere in private lives.

They watched while insular lawmakers kissed off a proposal to establish a bureau of immigration, which could have, at the very least, acknowledged the value of newcomers to the state.

They shook their collective head when lawmakers again turned down a modest human rights commission, and then tried to convince North Dakotans that human rights matters are being handled well by an under-funded, understaffed, manipulated agency in the Labor Department.

Economic comfort pretty much defines most legislators. They just don't get it because they don't have to. They don't really believe the state is in crisis because the crisis does not directly affect them. That's why they had no trouble shorting the human services budget -- except the budget for the well-organized nursing home industry.

The people who are in real need have no voice. "Those people" -- you know, the working poor with no health insurance, with sick kids, both parents working at more than one job each -- "those people" don't vote. They don't call their legislator. They don't have highly paid lobbyists in the Capitol. They have been marginalized by a political majority that is insulated by economic comfort.

And finally, apathy.

Apathy stems from frustration. Frustration is born from trying and failing -- again and again -- to slow or reverse trends that spell slow economic and social strangulation for most of the state. In the 30 years I've been observing and covering the Legislature, I've never seen such disappointment among young adults who love this state and want to stay here. But having watched the Legislature, many don't think change will ever come.

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The result, as the 2000 Census confirms, is more and more young people saying, "I'm gone."

Of course, heaping the blame for the state's woes on one legislative session is unfair. North Dakota's problems predate 2003. But that's no excuse for business as usual. Good leadership takes risks, stimulates innovation and is at least a little visionary. Lawmakers who trekked to Bismarck, balanced the budget and toddled home feeling good about themselves did what was required of them. Problem is, it wasn't near enough. It wasn't near enough to justify feeling good about the future of much of North Dakota.

Zaleski can be reached at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.

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