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Crises requires legislature to change

From its vantage point on the edge of the oil patch, the Bismarck Tribune recently called for more vigorous action by state and county governments to cope with the housing crisis throughout western North Dakota.

            "The state or counties should find a flat piece of ground," the Tribune wrote, "and bring in power, portable toilets and water, create lots, lay gravel for trails between spaces and, in general, establish temporary parks and tent villages."

Common sense tells us that the oil industry in western North Dakota is too big and too complex to treat as business as usual. The consequences of this development is staggering, creating circumstances that require legislative policy, authorization and funding on a more immediate basis.  In the absence of action, thousands of oil workers, residents and community services are struggling to cope with the fallout.  

Add to this oil crisis the coming fiscal shakedown that will occur in North Dakota after the November elections when the federal government starts making big cuts in the money it passes to states.

Being that North Dakota gets over $1.50 from the federal government for every $1 it pays in taxes, we can expect to experience significant reductions in federal money. And these cuts will not be timed for a biennial legislative session but will appear throughout 2013 and 2014 - with no legislature in session to respond. Ad hoc committees will not do the job.

The combination of oil development and federal program cuts  will require more diligent attention than can be given by a single 80-day biennial legislative session.

Fiscal decisions must consist of more than stuffing money in mattresses and hiding the leftovers in coffee cans. The time has come for the legislature to change its way of doing fiscal business and assume control of spending priorities in North Dakota. 

A solution already exists in the state constitution. Even though the 1972 proposed constitution was defeated, it produced an idea that was later added to the constitution and is in force today.

            The constitutional convention wanted to keep the part-time legislature but make it more effective in dealing with recurring problems.

To accomplish this, it extended the days a legislature could meet during a biennium from 60 to 80 days.  And then it provided that the 80 days need not be used consecutively and that committees could work throughout the biennium.

The idea was for the legislature to meet for 30 or 40 days in an opening session during which time it would create its standing  committees, assign bills, and then recess for a couple of months while committees worked.  The assembly would then be called into session for short plenary meetings throughout the biennium to deal with bills and other issues.

But the legislature hasn't used this flexible scheduling system. Instead, it simply added the 20 new days to its present format and continued meeting biennially, leaving problems such as we find in western North Dakota to fester until the next regular session.

If Measure 2 repealing the property tax should pass, we will have a another funding crisis when forced to figure out which of the services provided by 2,200 townships, counties, school districts and cities will be continued. More frequent legislative sessions will be needed to deal with requests from local governments.

The outdated biennial legislative system is not serving the state very well today nor will it in the future.

It is time for the legislature to take another look at the 80-day flexible schedule and be poised to react promptly when serious problems arise.