Let’s Take All State Institution Mandates, Including the State Hospital, Out of the Constitution

State Senator Tim Mathern, a Democrat from Fargo, wants to remove language mandating the existence and location of the North Dakota State Hospital from the state constitution. Photo via ND.gov

State Senator Tim Mathern, a Democrat from Fargo who is also his party’s candidate for Treasurer this election cycle, wants to remove the language from the state constitution mandating that the State of North Dakota operate a State Hospital in Jamestown.

He thinks the mandate for a large facility in a specific geographic location is an impediment to reforming the state’s mental health policies.

There will be legislation to make the changes Mathern wants before the 2017 Legislature. Not surprisingly, the proposal wasn’t pleasing to lawmakers from Jamestown who immediately pushed back at the idea:

Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said the constitutional mandate for the State Hospital needs to stay in place.

“I totally disagree with him (Mathern) on this,” Grabinger said. “The State Hospital is centrally located and continues to serve the state well.”

Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, also supports maintaining a reference to the State Hospital in the North Dakota Constitution.

“I understand he’s trying to focus on community care,” he said, referring to Mathern’s proposed resolution. “But I also understand there is still a purpose for the State Hospital.”

The proposal has also rankled some in the media. The Fargo Forum editorial board gave Mathern their dreaded “leafy spurge” for “advocating the extreme position of removing the State Hospital at Jamestown from the state constitution.” The Grand Forks Herald, meanwhile, said it was important to keep the hospital in Jamestown because of the jobs it creates:

“[T]he fact is, Jamestown depends on the hospital and its 400-plus jobs,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “The city is healthy today in part because of the hospital, and the hospital is in Jamestown in large part because of the constitution.”

North Dakota has lots of mandates for state institutions in its constitution, from the requirement for a State Hospital in Jamestown to the requirement for a State Veterans Home in Lisbon to the mandates for eight of the 11 institutions in the North Dakota University System in their various communities.

What seems like absolutely the wrong priority is operating a hospital in Jamestown, using resources which could better be used elsewhere, just to maintain jobs and economic stimulus in Jamestown.

How did these institutions get into the state constitution? Blatantly parochial politics. These institutions were plums – guaranteed jobs and commerce – handed out to influential lawmakers who wanted them in their districts and communities. And, as you can see from the first volleys of the fight over the state hospital, they’ll fight to keep them.

But is that in the best interests of the state?

Going back to Mathern’s legislation, what he wants to do is end the mandate for the hospital in Jamestown so that lawmakers have flexibility to better fund mental health services around the state. That seems like the right priority to me.

What seems like absolutely the wrong priority is operating a hospital in Jamestown, using resources which could better be used elsewhere, just to maintain jobs and economic stimulus in Jamestown.

At the national level Congress has often been accused – accurately, I believe – of fighting to keep open military bases that are no longer in line with the military’s needs, or funding weapons systems the military doesn’t want, all because or parochial interests.

In doing this Congress prioritizes the economic impacts in their states or districts from bases and defenses contractors over sound national defense policy.

That’s wrong. It’s also wrong for state lawmakers to prioritize the economic impacts of constitutionally-mandated institutions like the State Hospital over sound mental health policy.

If a perfect world we’d strip all mandates for state institutions from the constitution. But if we can start with the State Hospital, that’s fine by me. Not because I think we should close the hospital – I’m not familiar enough with the issues to say one way or another – but because it shouldn’t be left open because of rank parochialism embedded in the state constitution.

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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