Legislature will survive term limits

Lloyd Omdahl

Term limits will not greatly impact the state legislature if the constitutional provision being proposed by initiative petition is approved by the voters in 2022.

Called “ultraconservative” by the media, the 42-member petitioning committee must expect some policy changes in North Dakota as a reward for their efforts.  What those policies may be in an already conservative state have not been disclosed.

Unless the public at large is hurting, change is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The only time change happened swiftly in North Dakota was when farmers revolted 100 years ago by forming to Nonpartisan League to fight Minneapolis exploitation.

Governors, Republicans and Democrats alike, have come into office with high hopes and expectations only to be stonewalled by fragmented state and local governments. It takes the effort of a mountain to produce a mole hill.

While I am still undecided how to vote on term limits, I have learned from experience that the legislature is in a failsafe freefall that cannot be changed by a simple measure approved by the people.

When the 4-year term for members of the North Dakota House of Representatives was proposed, I eagerly voted for it, thinking that 4-year terms would give legislators enough courage to get us out of our frontier rut.  Actually 4-year terms did more damage than good.

First of all, it did not improve the nature of our policies. Second, the 4-year terms were used by the legislature to make re-election easier.  They decided that it would be beneficial to the political parties to have all legislators from a district run as a “team”.

Not even considered was the idea of dividing each senate district into two house districts, with candidates running in alternate years.  The “team” concept prevented closer representation of the people, important in a state with districts kept large to preserve the “team”.

Then when we look at the gerrymandering of the legislative seats, we could conclude that the mind of present legislators has been to preserve their re-election rather than better represent the people.

  If the 42-member committee proposing the term limits had thought out their options they would have realized that their goal, whatever it may be, could be achieved by reducing terms of  the house members from 4-year  to the old 2-year terms.  Then the whole house would be up for grabs every two years.

The proposal now being circulated would give every legislator another eight years before being impacted by term limits.  In the year 2030, the terms of present legislators would be terminated. So petition sponsors would have to wait eight years to grabs a number of seats.

Now every legislator won’t stay for the whole eight years of grace because elections for legislators would continue to be held and result in some change. But new legislators would be absorbed slowly by the legislative culture.

Will the 8-year limit change the way legislators think about policy? Will it make them more creative or more timid?

Some social observers have noted that when frugal people become wealthy many continue in be frugal. A poll of royalty beneficiaries in western North Dakota would give us a few facts upon which to estimate the behavior of legislators under term limits. Their old habits may not be changed.

At the same time, we should note the wisdom of a little elderly lady gathered in a crowd around a pedestrian killed while crossing a busy street. “Give him an enema! Give him an enema!” she shouted to which a bystander said “He’s dead, it won’t help.” “Well, it won’t hurt,” she reasoned.  So maybe term limits wouldn’t hurt.

At any rate, the sponsors should not expect too much.