Could The North Dakota Legislature Streamline Bill Introduction?

I’ve heard from a few of my fellow gadflies some consternation over perceived delays in getting bills filed and posted online for public scrutiny.

While I’m always anxious as the session begins to see what new bills are being filed, I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary from past sessions. I contacted a few lawmakers and they told me they hadn’t noticed any significant delays (outside of one mentioning a handful of mistakes on some draft bills that had to be corrected).

Rep. Mike Nathe, chairman of the House Education Committee, told me that the first weeks of the session are always stressful in terms of getting bills filed, posted, and scheduled for hearings. He told me that there is a deadline tomorrow for bills to be posted, and that there is “no grand conspiracy” to keep bills away from the public.

“This is the way it has been done for years,” he told me.

I suspect that some of the new online transparency tools for the legislative process – the bill tracking service and the streaming video – have created an expectation for immediacy among some legislative observers that simply hasn’t existed before. I don’t think what’s happening this session is out of the ordinary from past sessions. What is perceived as delays may be based on false expectations.

Of course, that doesn’t mean things can’t be improved.

It’s unfair to expect the public to engage on legislation that gets a committee hearing just days after it’s filed. One piece of legislation I wrote about here on the blog today – Rep. Scott Louser’s moratorium on a new nickname for UND – isn’t available online today (per Nathe I suspect it will be online tomorrow), yet it has a committee hearing scheduled for Monday.

Granted Louser’s bill isn’t a complicated one, but what if were some convoluted piece of policy? And what if members of the public interested in the bill had just a couple of days to read it, digest it, and organize a trip to Bismarck to make a statement on the bill?

Each new iteration of the legislative assembly (who is elected and who is not) is decided in early November. The state constitution requires that the legislature begin its session no later than January 11, roughly two months later. That’s not a lot of time for lawmakers to work with constituents to conceive of legislation, get it written, circulate it for co-sponsors, and get it filed for consideration.

Especially those who were just elected two months previous.

Lawmakers have to move fast because they only have 80 days of session to work with, but I wonder if maybe we could bring more scrutiny and transparency to this process if we moved the session back later in the year so that we could have looser deadlines for creating legislation. Perhaps this could be combined with a requirement that legislation be available for public scrutiny – including posting online – for a certain number of days before a committee hearing is held.

The status quo may work well for the insiders – the lawmakers and bureaucrats and political professionals who track this process closely – but for the public things can move so swiftly that the end result is an opaque process.

We can, and probably should, do better.

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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