Bette Grande: The Legislature Is In Session, Time For Citizens To Engage

It was 1997 my first year in the North Dakota Legislature and a Bill came to the floor to complete the 4-lane on Highway 2 between Minot and Williston.  The state’s economy was doing better, but times were still tough in western North Dakota.  I voted in favor of the Highway 2 bill and that led to some colorful language from the Majority Leader at the time.  He could not understand why a freshman legislator representing a portion of southwest Fargo would support that Bill.

The easy answer is that I am a Williston girl, but over my years in the Legislature I learned it was much more than that.  People talk of the divisions in the legislature – east vs west, urban vs rural, 52 counties vs “imperial Cass”.  And there is some truth to each.  But most legislators understand that North Dakota is unique.  A small population in a fairly large state and we are more interconnected than not.  The Highway 2 Bill made sense in 1997 but we had no idea what the benefits would be just ten years later.

The 2015 legislative session will be challenging as legislators focus on funding legitimate priorities with an uncertain budget.  These are important times and as North Dakotans you have the opportunity to be part of that process.

Now is the time to get involved.

Our legislative process is very open and I encourage you to get involved.  Each legislative district has about 16,000 voters which is a very small number compared with other states.  Each bill that is introduced gets a hearing in committee and a vote on the floor – this does not happen in other states where Committee Chairman can “pocket” bills so they never see the light of day.  I like our process.

The legislative day is filled with committee work and floor sessions and it is difficult to get though on the phone.  As technology has advanced there are fewer hand-written letters each session but a short and direct hand-written note is very powerful if it is signed.  From experience, a letter or email from a constituent or someone from North Dakota is far more important than an email from California.

I heard from many people over the years who did not know who their legislators were or the best way to comment on a particular Bill.  If you do not know who your legislators are locate their names and contact information here.

It is easy to track the Bills that you feel strongly about. Contact your legislators personally and consider attending the Bill hearing to testify for or against the Bill.  Citizen testimony is welcomed and can be powerful.  You will not get “grilled” by the legislators but you may get questions seeking clarification of your testimony.

It is important to remember that with over 800 Bills and Resolutions introduced each Session and just 80 days or less for the Session it is a time of information overload.

When you want to comment on a particular Bill I suggest you start by contacting your District legislators. Avoid the “canned” or multiple-page mass mailings; these are generally ignored.  Legislators want to know what you think and why you care about the issue. Short emails are the best option with most legislators always include your name, address and contact information so your legislator can contact you. (Most will ignore anonymous contacts.)   Second, contact the legislators on the Committee that will hear the Bill.  Follow any Committee action and amendments; a Bill will change throughout the process and that can affect how you feel about the Bill.  Keep your comments short (2-3 paragraphs) and specific to the Bill; why you support or do not support the Bill and any suggested amendment.

We have a part-time citizen legislature.  Your legislators welcome input from people directly affected by a specific Bill.  When the Highway 2 Bill came up in 1997 I got input from my dad who owned a business in Williston and others from my western North Dakota.  When you have to vote either yes or no on every Bill you want honest input and then you make the best decision you can. Things move quickly and by tracking your Bills you can follow any amendments.  Be timely.  Once a Bill reaches the floor it is too late for House members to amend. Your input is then limited to an up or down vote.

I have worked with state legislators from all over our country.  Few states have the open and accessible process that we have in North Dakota.  If you want to have an impact and have your voice heard – you have that opportunity in North Dakota.   I hope you will do so.

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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