by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
The opening of the 58th North Dakota Legislative Assembly is less than two months away. It is an excellent time to put faith into action, protect human life, foster the common good, and establish justice. Here are some things to keep in mind as we approach the legislative season.
North Dakota Catholic Conference Web Site -- ndcatholic.org
The North Dakota Catholic Conference website (ndcatholic.org) can help you stay abreast of the issues before the legislature, the bishops’ response to those issues, and how you can help.
Legislative Action Network
Every parish should have a legislative action network. Through this network, the North Dakota Catholic Conference disseminates information to parishioners who can call their legislators. Action alerts are only effective if parishioners make the phone calls and, using a parish phone tree, ask others to do the same. Some action alerts will be sent by e-mail. If we don’t have your e-mail address and you want to be involved, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Dakota has one of the most citizen friendly legislatures in the nation. Citizens are free to, and encouraged to, testify for or against bills. So long as you are speaking on your own behalf, you do not need to register as a lobbyist. All committee hearings are open to the public.
Could it be more Friendly?
Having said that, there are a few things that, if addressed, could make the legislature more friendly and accessible.
Parking -- Parking is difficult to find around the capitol building. The below freezing weather and brisk wind does not help matters. If you come to the capitol, give yourself extra time to find a place to park.
Taking sides -- Most every committee hearing allows testimony for the bill and then against the bill. Unless you arrange it with the committee chairman before the hearing, there may not be an opportunity to give general comments. This can be very frustrating, especially for those sharing principles from a faith perspective. Principles don’t always fit neatly into “oppose” and “support” categories.
Hearing Notice -- The North Dakota legislature moves fast. This means that the hearing schedule for a week is not released until Friday before. That gives both citizens and lobbyists little time to prepare or even find out about Monday’s hearings.
Appropriation Committee -- Perhaps the most important committee in either chamber is the appropriation committee. That committee decides if a bill is going to get any funding and how much. Sometimes the committee chairman only allows testimony on the funding, not the reason for the funding request. This makes little sense. The appropriation committee must decide whether a bill is worth funding. If they don’t hear the reasons for the bill, how are they suppose to know if its a good or bad idea?
Access -- Most legislators are easily accessible. It is, however, often difficult to reach them by phone. If you call, you will probably have to leave a message. Most legislators have e-mail. A few, however, do not. Moreover, there are some that have e-mail but rarely check it when they are not in session.
Crowded Rooms -- Certain bills will draw more attention than others. When that happens, a committee room can get very crowded. Committee chairmen and the clerks usually work to get everyone in and comfortable and will sometimes move to a larger room. That also is not always possible. Consider coming early so you get a good seat.
Uncomfortable Seats -- Speaking of seats, some of them are very uncomfortable. Consider yourself forewarned.
So get involved, join the legislative action network, visit the capitol. Just consider bringing a seat cushion.