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North Dakota lawmakers' interim work can be productive, sometimes 'a dry hole'

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An interim legislative committee meets on Aug. 16, 2019. From left are Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood; Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier; Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks; and Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden.

Interim legislative committees are wrapping up dozens of studies this fall, work that some top North Dakota lawmakers have varying thoughts about.

During the 2019-20 interim, 29 committees have undertaken 47 studies, many of which have produced bill drafts for the 2021 Legislature. The 2017-18 interim produced 36 bill drafts, 24 of which became law.

The coronavirus pandemic complicated the interim, leading legislative leaders to ramp up livestreaming and remote capabilities, but videoconferences might not carry over to the next interim. Efforts to take the Legislature from biennial to annual sessions also could resurface.

Interim studies

In the past, many studies, which last about 15 months, have produced no legislation or recommendations. Some issues are studied over years. Interim committees meet about five times. Some committees travel around the state to gather public input.

Committees each produce reports summarizing their interim work for Legislative Management, a group of lawmakers that directs interim work. Chairman and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he prefers to let committees do their work, the products of which the full Legislature will vet.

"We'll have a good debating, vetting process ... and see what the rest of the Legislature thinks," he said.

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Some lawmakers put a lot of personal time and energy into studies, he added. He declined to comment on whether committees take on too much work. The 17-member Legislative Management chose this interim's studies by consensus in May 2019. Some studies were required, others were optional.

Study topics this interim included trial electronic land posting, uses of the state's oil tax savings, questions surrounding new state government ethics laws and implications of legalizing marijuana.

'You find out the truth'

Some interim committees do well in advancing legislation, but others "kind of are a dry hole, but they gather information," said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, first elected in 1976 and a previous chairman of Legislative Management.

He cited a 2017-18 interim committee's study of refugee resettlement in North Dakota. It didn't produce recommendations, but "what they accomplished was to educate the legislators ... about the situation," he said. The study came as an amendment to a controversial bill that as introduced would have allowed for community moratoriums on refugee resettlement.

"Sometimes you resolve a problem or you resolve a situation without having to have laws passed. You just find out about it, you find out the truth about it and you go from there," Holmberg said. 

But some studies might have too broad a scope and lead lawmakers to wander from the true focus at hand, he said. Interim workloads have varied "a lot" in his time in the Legislature. Some interims have accomplished more than others, he said.

"I'm sure that every interim has their own statistic," Holmberg said. 

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, sees committees doing "heavy lifting" on issues related to health care costs and juvenile justice. He evaluates an interim based on committees' actual results rather than the number of bill drafts put forth. 

"Did committees put the work in? Did they really try to dig deep on some of these issues?" he said. 

Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, chairs the interim Health Care Committee, which has three bill drafts -- one introduced by him, another by North Dakota's Insurance Department and the third resulting from legal research. The committee collected information and heard testimony throughout the interim.

"There are a variety of ways, I think, (bill drafts) come forward, and that depends on the subject area and the committee," Keiser said. 

Changing times?

North Dakota's Legislature meets for up to 80 days every two years to write new laws and budgets. The 2019 Legislature worked through about 900 bills in 76 days.

North Dakota is one of four state legislatures to meet biennially. Unsuccessful bills in recent years have advocated for annual sessions. Proponents say annual sessions would help the state respond better to budget issues; critics say the current structure makes for efficient government.

"That's a question that is becoming a little more difficult every year to defend of the current system," Holmberg said.

Chief among the 2019-20 interim topics was livestreaming of committee meetings, which began as a small study with cameras in two rooms but later ballooned as a necessity after the pandemic emerged in North Dakota. Committee meetings were on hold for three months last spring.

Legislative leaders expanded livestreaming and remote meeting capabilities in advance of a potential fall special session, which didn't materialize. The 2021 Legislature is expected to be a hybrid of in-person and remote participation. Top lawmakers are still working out the details of the coming session that convenes in January.

But remote participation might not carry over to the next interim. Pollert said he prefers face-to-face meetings rather than videoconferences.

"If everything works out and we get the coronavirus under control -- whatever that means -- it is my intention ... I still want folks at (their) interim committees face-to-face," he said. "I'm not in favor of doing videoconferencing even after this hopefully gets under control." 

Holmberg said the full Legislature should assess and decide after the pandemic wanes whether virtual or hybrid interim meetings continue.

Boschee said the technology upgrades benefit the public as well as lawmakers, and save money for the state. Lawmakers' compensation and expense reimbursements for meeting attendance in the 2017-18 interim totaled $805,190; through August for the 2019-20 interim, the total is $471,204. The difference is mostly due to meeting changes because of the pandemic.

"Of course we prefer having people in person, but just like any other thing in society, whether it's our education system or private businesses, when we provide flexibility, we get greater participation," Boschee said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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