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Jack Zaleski, Published January 30 2011

Zaleski: Must every absurd idea become a bill?

I’ve been writing about the North Dakota Legislature for more years than all but one of the current lawmakers have been serving. My first session was the 1971 assembly. Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, was elected in 1966.

Back then, I was a reporter for the Devils Lake Daily Journal. I’ve loved every session since because the North Dakota Legislature is responsive and open. Those qualities make the biennial session unique when compared to legislatures in other states. Easy access to lawmakers and their willingness to talk with constituents, media types, lobbyists and students distinguish the assembly as a true “citizen legislature.”

But a good thing can be taken too far, can be abused, can become more posturing than principle, more goofiness than governance.

This session, some lawmakers are interpreting a cherished tradition so liberally that they risk reducing it to a silly and meaningless waste of time. It’s the practice of converting nearly every request into a bill that then goes through the legislative grinder, even though there is no chance the bill will pass. This expansive view of the Legislature’s role might seem to comport with the tradition of openness, but it’s just a sliver shy of irresponsibility.

Whatever happened to leadership? Lawmakers should have the courage and good sense to tell a group from back home that a bill to recognize lutefisk suppers is not the way the Legislature should use its limited calendar. When a proposal is unquestionably unconstitutional, it should never see the light of a legislative day. Leaders should tell their caucus members to refrain from introducing frivolous bills.

Good legislators disagree. In a recent Forum commentary, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said, “... we have always believed that any idea, whether profound or ridiculous, gets its day in court and what is profound to one legislator or citizen may be absolute nonsense to another …”

Now wait a minute. There are some things that objectively are “absolute nonsense” by any measure. Lawmakers should have keen nonsense detectors. They should strive to keep the nonsensical and ridiculous off the Legislature’s agenda. We elect them for that, at least, don’t we?

Ridiculous was center stage last week when three good lawmakers who knew better introduced a bill at the behest of students that aimed to censor political ads. Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, and Reps. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, and Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, are competent, experienced legislators. They knew the bill was unconstitutional. They knew it was not intended to become law. Nevertheless, they succumbed to a feel-good excuse that the bill was a civics lesson for students and was in keeping with the tradition of honoring constituents’ requests, no matter how dumb.

If lawmakers have time for absurdities, maybe the Legislature should meet once every three years … or have an occasional faux special session to take up all those cockamamie bills that will never become law but are oh-so-much fun to talk about.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.