At the Legislature: individual rights vs. social action 

But issues are not always one or the other

By Dylan Sherman, NDNAEF

BISMARCK — A divergence of vision on how best to protect individual rights while addressing societal issues has sometimes marked the 2021 North Dakota legislative session, but the difference between the two aims is not always clear.

Legislators in North Dakota have argued one way or the other this session, on whether bills would affect individual or social rights, for better or worse.

Affordable health care is an area where the legislature felt that while some bills may be beneficial, they could infringe on personal rights. Two health care bills that failed include a paid family leave study and an affordable insulin bill.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said it is tricky within his party, where core tenets are smaller government and lower spending, and some members are wired to cut budgets.

“When you talk about the Human Services budget, they are all going to put the kibosh on that spending,” he said. 

But when Wardner would show some legislators where the spending would go, for example to long-term care facilities, caucus members who routinely advocate for big cuts may change their minds. The same holds true when funding is needed to ensure children are educated.

Wardner said the tough areas are when you try to make things better for large groups but concerns are raised about how legislation could hurt the individual rights of others. When House Bill 1441, relating to paid family leave, was discussed in the Senate, a main argument against the bill was how it would hurt small businesses.

“It’s another tough one,” he said. “These small business owners, they can’t afford it.”

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said a lot of the voting on these issues comes down to where legislators’ priorities are. 

“I think a lot of the things we discuss and debate in the legislature are about what individuals can and can’t do by themselves,” she said. “That is ultimately where government steps in.”

Where the government can step in depends on the issue, Oban said, as each legislator has their own idea of when it is most beneficial.

“We often forget that we are a part of a bigger society, whether we like that or not,” she said. 

Oban said focusing on more social issues is not related to partisanship, but the viewpoint of each legislator.

“I often try to explain to people that as a Democrat, I am as fiscally responsible as anybody claiming to be a Republican,” she said. “Oftentimes our differences are where we think those priorities of what we fund should be.”

Oban said sometimes politicians are reluctant to be honest about how progress gets made. “The truth is you don’t get to have nice things if you don’t pay for them,” she said.

While paid family leave and affordable insulin bills failed in the Senate, HB 1278, relating to unemployment benefits to military spouses passed resoundingly in the Senate.

“I believe some people go into those votes thinking that some people are more deserving than others,” Oban said.

The Senate voted March 29 to turn HB 1298, which would have limited transgender athletes from participating in sports, into a study. Both sides argued the bill was important for individual rights – those of women and girls and those of people who identify as transgender.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said the bill was meant to protect female athletes. “We fought so hard … for women and girls to have equal opportunity in sports,” she said, and allowing transgendered athletes to compete with girls would be a step back. Other legislators in both chambers argued the proposed ban would discriminate against and harm students who identify as transgender.

Wardner said some issues brought before the chamber have no winners, including HB 1298.

“I have a lot of concern about young people and the next generation,” he said. “I am not into discriminating against anybody.”

Protecting individual rights has also moved into the higher education realm, with HB 1503 aimed to protect students’ freedom of speech on college campuses.

“It is a bill that will guarantee the constitutional rights, particularly the free speech rights, to our students on North Dakota college and university campuses,” said Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, who introduced the bill to the Senate Education Committee.

Koppelman said the bill prevents campuses from relegating student expression to small, out-of-the-way areas of campus. The bill also would prohibit universities from charging students or student groups for security fees based on the content of a guest speaker’s presentation.

“The problem is there is a mixed bag from campus to campus, on how the things HB 1503 sets forth are being violated currently,” he said. “Some campuses are very good in some areas, and a couple other areas, they need some work.”

Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the North Dakota University System, provided testimony saying the system already has freedom of speech protection, adopted after the previous legislative session.

“NDUS had not received any complaints or negative feedback about the policy adopted by the State Board of Higher Education until the introduction of H.B. 1503,” she said. “This is buttressed by the fact that there have been no substantiated reports of student free speech violations in at least 12 years within the NDUS.”

Although HB 1503 received a “do not pass” recommendation from the Senate committee, it was passed by a vote of 35-12 in the Senate on April 1.

Proponents of the bill in the Senate argued the current protections are spotty. Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said this bill will take proven case law and put it in the state’s century code.

“Clearly the university system has worked with students and faculty to craft free speech policies, but there is still work to be done,” he said. 

Oban said she is worried about how some issues can be oversimplified and made black-or-white in the Legislature.

“I believe North Dakotans deserve people who want to have serious discussions and debate honest differences without oversimplifying things,” she said.