Rod St. Aubyn: Long Session, Short Nerves


The unusual ending of the ND Legislature came as a shock to many, but the impasse that existed between the House and the Senate should have been totally understandable.

The ending days of a legislative session are often frustrating and short tempers are common between members of contentious conference committee.  Legislators are tired and anxious to go home One legislator jokingly expressed his frustrations with me about the drawn out ending by saying “there is a legitimate reason why they don’t allow guns in the Capitol.”

Both the House and Senate members tried to blame each other for the differences in the NDPERS Appropriation bill, SB 2022, and the stalemate that existed.  The House wanted to make significant changes to the NDPERS process and to the NDPERS Board by adding 4 legislative members to that board and removing the representative from the Attorney General’s Office and the Health Department.  The Senate disagreed and felt that the NDPERS Board has been doing an adequate job managing NDPERS.  The Senate also disagreed with other policy issues amended to the appropriation bill.  Both sides make legitimate arguments.

House members criticized the Senate for delaying actions on HB 1475 (the delayed House bill that made significant changes to the NDPERS bid process).  Ultimately, the Senate unanimously defeated (0-46) HB 1475 after it was significantly amended.  House members roundly criticized the Senate for not dealing with the bill earlier.  Looking at the record tells somewhat of a different story.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]One legislator jokingly expressed his frustrations with me about the drawn out ending by saying “there is a legitimate reason why they don’t allow guns in the Capitol.”[/mks_pullquote]

The House introduced the delayed bill, HB 1475 (NDPERS Bid bill), and had their hearing on it before the House IBL Committee on 3/16.  The full House adopted amendments and passed the bill as amended on 3/26 by a vote of 77-14 (10 days).  Even though the bill had a fiscal note (over $5 million in general funds and $7 million in special funds), it was never re-referred to House Appropriations Committee.

The Senate received the bill on 3/30 and had its first hearing on 3/31 in the Senate Human Services Committee.  The deadline for re-referring bills to the Appropriations Committees from standing committees was supposed to be 3/30.  The Senate Human Services Committee held several meetings to work on the bill.  Keep in mind that by this time, conference committees began to meet and regularly scheduled committee meetings were no longer being held.  Special time had to be scheduled to accommodate time for committee work on bills.  Senate amendments for HB 1475 were adopted by the full Senate on 4/20 and the full Senate unanimously defeated the bill on 4/23.  The Senate had the bill for 25 days.

Now let’s look at the House delays on SB 2022 (NDPERS Appropriation bill).  The bill was introduced in the House after crossover and was re-referred to the House Appropriations Committee on 3/4.  They had their first hearing on 3/11.  They had a second hearing on 3/27.  They adopted amendments and passed the amended bill on 4/24, after HB 1475 was defeated in the Senate.  They specifically held onto the bill until action was taken on HB 1475.  So the House had SB 2022 for 51 days, over twice as long as the Senate held onto HB 1475.

The deadline for taking action on bills in the second house was supposed to be April 10.  The House adopted some amendments to SB 2022 from HB 1475 and some new amendments that the public never had the opportunity to discuss.

The Senate also held onto an Education bill until the waning days of the session.  So both houses were guilty of some gamesmanship.

Generally, the different legislative houses do not take kindly to amending previously killed bills or parts of those bills into other bills.  However, it does happen.  As evidence, the conference committee for SB 2015, the OMB appropriation bill, included language from a bill by Sen. Flakoll that Rep. Kasper’s committee had previously recommended to be killed.  That bill would require that the names of legislators, who request public records, must be divulged.  Rep. Kasper questioned why that bill once again appeared in the OMB bill after the House had previously killed the bill.  Yet at the same time, Rep. Kasper was advocating the amendment of parts of previously defeated HB 1475 into SB 2022.

Strange things can happen at the end of a legislative session.  Whether the legislature has to reconvene to pass the only bill left, SB 2022, is yet unknown.  There is some discussion that NDPERS has continuing appropriation authority and as such could operate through the 2015-17 biennium.  Others argue that they will still need to pass the bill.  Though nerves may have been frayed toward the end of the session, I am confident that legislative leaders will find a solution for a quick adjournment if they do need to reconvene before July 1.  In the meantime, the break from the legislative process will be good for all the legislators.