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Democracy and special interests

BISMARCK, N.D. — It seems everyone is too busy these days, but when the North Dakota legislative session rolls around, I notice a new level of stress in people. The number of bills introduced in January is difficult for even a full-time lobbyist to monitor (I believe the words one of them used recently were "drinking from a firehose").

As a lawyer representing farmers and ranchers, I try to keep up with the bills that affect my clients, and sometimes start to relate to the joke that our legislative sessions should be two days every eight years rather than eighty days every two years.

Joking aside, I would like to share some observations. I'll start with my complaints, and then try to convince you that you need to get involved anyway.

A few years ago, I was at a hearing on an oil and gas issue that impacted landowners, and I heard testimony from an agency head that I believed was dead wrong. I had already testified, so I went back to my office and spent several hours researching and drafting a letter to the committee members explaining why the agency head was wrong. I finished the letter by about 8:00 p.m. and sent it off to all the committee members.

I was exhausted and hungry, so called my wife and asked her to go out for dinner with me. As we were walking into one of the nicer restaurants in town, I almost ran into a familiar-looking lobbyist, who was followed out the door by most of the committee members to whom I had just sent my letter. I still think it was a great letter, but somehow I suspect the lobbyist was more convincing than I was after he bought dinner.

I frequently hear these so-called experts from various industries and state agencies testify as if they are merely there to educate our legislators. I don't suppose I'm surprising anyone by saying the education offered is often very biased, but what I find alarming and pernicious is the ample testimony I hear that is downright misdirection.

Farmers bring concerns before the legislators, and the experts go into action to convince them of one of two things: Either the farmers' concerns are unfounded, or that it will be addressed by some watered-down version of the requested solution.

I'm most bothered by the second approach. Usually if there is a problem, it will be voiced and, in my experience, the legislators from rural areas listen to the farmers' concerns and take them seriously. But too often, the special interests or state agencies swoop in and persuade the legislators to accept some half-measure that in all practicality does nothing to fix the problem. At the end of the session, the experts convince the legislators that everyone compromised on a solution and the problem is resolved. I can only encourage our legislators to beware of issues that seem to follow them back to each session.

You might doubt my abilities as a lawyer when I say I am actually trying to convince farmers and ranchers to get involved, but that is exactly what I am doing. And here's why: The problems I shared can only happen when farmers, ranchers, landowners and those who care about the land, do nothing.

We know there are issues aplenty negatively impacting farmers, and I have witnessed firsthand a room packed with angry farmers still holds more sway in this state than the fanciest suits money can buy. Unfortunately, we're currently running low on rooms packed with angry farmers.

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