Rod St. Aubyn: For New Legislators "Swearing In" Will Be Followed By "Swearing At"

Now that the election is over, the ND Legislature will soon be meeting for their Organizational Session in early December.  As I often say, this is the time that newly elected or reelected legislators are “sworn in” which is quickly followed by being “sworn at”.

Soon the individual caucuses will be selecting their “leaders” to help steer this group through the 80 legislative days of the 64th Legislative Session.  During the Organizational Session committee size, chairs, and member makeup will be determined.  Newly elected legislators will be given quick lessons on how the legislature actually works, procedures to follow, and other mundane issues that most of the public don’t even consider.  Legislators will soon receive the Governor’s proposed budget that they will be tasked to amend with their own priorities.

Despite what many outsiders may feel, I predict that this upcoming session will most likely be one of the toughest legislative sessions in many years.

While many feel that ND has so much money at its fingertips it should be easy to fund all the programs in the state and new ones yet to be considered.  While it is true that oil revenues have blessed our state, important policy decisions will shape how fiscal priorities will be decided.  I had the privilege of serving in both the ND House and the ND Senate.  What is strikingly different is the fiscal picture that we faced then compared to now.  Having served on both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, our tasks were often centered on trimming the Governors’ proposed budgets to end up with an adequate “ending fund balance” in the mind of the Legislature.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#6b6b6b” txt_color=”#ffffff”]”It is often told that being a legislative leader is like herding cats.  After all, the leader is not the legislators’ boss.  The leader does not have the power to un-elect that member, though I am sure at times they really wished they had that power.”[/mks_pullquote]

While this “ending fund balance” can be debated until the cows come home, it is the legislature’s best guess to ensure that all state agencies can fulfill all of the duties prescribed by state law.  I chuckle at times to hear all the outside political pundits pontificate what the “ending fund balance” should be.  I can guarantee that whatever prediction you guess that figure should and will be; you will be wrong.  A two year projection is nearly impossible, but the legislature has been diligent in ensuring that agencies are adequately funded and that there are safeguards to protect the citizenry.

As difficult as it is, I am strongly opposed to annual legislative sessions.  That will simply lead to full time professional legislators instead of the citizen legislature that we currently have.  I recall in the late 80’s that Governors were forced to make allotments to cut agency budgets between legislative sessions.  Our state has been blessed with extra resources to fund agencies adequately, too much in many people’s minds.  I recall when there was a long standing resolution that the state’s goal was to provide 70% of K-12 schools’ funding.  While we never quite made it to that goal during those years, that has changed significantly.  I was told by one legislator that the state is now funding over 80% of educational costs.  I am not saying that is wrong or right, but instead just illustrating how things have really changed in 20+ years.

One of the key issues that legislators face is “sustainability” of state resources.  With the recent drop in oil prices, the sustainability of oil revenues in the future and being able to predict those prices for the next two years is difficult at best.  I was informed that the Tax Department had told some legislators that based on revenues generated on oil at $90/barrel, for every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil; it will result in a $100 million drop in state revenue per biennium.  This sobering fact greatly impacts the thoughts of legislative leaders and Appropriation Chairs.  The state simply cannot totally depend upon oil revenues as a constant stable source of revenues.

Now I want to go back to the challenges faced by legislative leaders.  Republicans have a super majority in both houses of the legislature – the Senate with 32 Republicans and 15 Democrats and the House with 71 Republicans and 23 Democrats.  With those numbers you would think that Republicans could do absolutely anything that they want.  However, it is important to note that both the Republican and Democrat caucuses are composed of a very broad spectrum of people.  Both caucuses are comprised of liberal members and more conservative members. These members were elected to represent their own districts, whose priorities may be entirely different than other members’ districts.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#6b6b6b” txt_color=”#ffffff”]”I was informed that the Tax Department had told some legislators that based on revenues generated on oil at $90/barrel, for every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil; it will result in a $100 million drop in state revenue per biennium.”[/mks_pullquote]

For example, a district that has a university or a college in their district or a lot of university or college employees residing in that district will have a totally different perspective than one in the West greatly affected by infrastructure needs within their oil-impacted district.  Conservatives often criticize what they perceive as more liberal Republicans from a more liberal voting district for not representing their conservative views.  The same holds true with liberal members of the Democrat party who are upset with the more conservative members of their party.

But what both sides don’t understand is that in these particular situations and districts, is it better to have that member side with them 70% of the time, compared to the alternative of the opposing party representing them, and they would get probably 0 to 10% of support on their issues?  This is the issue faced by legislative leaders.  It is often told that being a legislative leader is like herding cats.  After all, the leader is not the legislators’ boss.  The leader does not have the power to un-elect that member, though I am sure at times they really wished they had that power.

This session is faced with many, many challenges.  Infrastructure needs, unknown revenue sources, behavioral health challenges throughout the state, tax cut proposals, a growing population, and a myriad of other funding requests.  A lot of available dollars will result in even more “hands out” looking for state appropriations.  In addition to that, there will be many other non-funding policy issues such as what have been identified previously in this blog dealing with election and campaign issues, open records/open meeting penalties, higher education issues, K-12 issues, among others that will be presented for consideration in the estimated 1,000 or so bills that will have to be considered in the allotted 80 legislative days.

After this next legislative session, many of the newly elected members of the legislature may wish that they had not been successful in this past November’s election.  It promises to be a challenging session for legislators, but even more so for legislative leaders.  They will be faced with trying to herd these cats into a focused shared goal.  I say good luck to all of them.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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