ND Gov. Bergum’s departure ushers in new era of term limits on state politicians

Now that Gov. Doug Burgum has decided against seeking a third term, whoever follows him in office will be the first North Dakota governor to be restricted to no more than eight years on the job under term limits approved by voters in 2022. The constitutional amendment passed by roughly two-thirds of the electorate also restricts state representatives and state senators from serving more than eight consecutive years in office, starting from scratch in 2023.

The clock has only begun ticking on the restrictions, which will not end any politician’s time in office until 2030. Yet several legislators contacted by the Grand Forks Herald already predict the new prohibitions on politicians will result in dire consequences for the state.

With term limits an approaching reality in North Dakota, a number of legislators say they have concerns about the future of the Legislature.

“Term limits are a looming problem,” Rep. Eric Murphy, R-Grand Forks, said in response to a Herald survey distributed to Grand Forks lawmakers. He added that it is easy to underappreciate the “key role of institutional knowledge in the Legislature.”

Among the reasons supporters gave for passing term limits was a desire to bring in fresh perspectives to state government and to discourage career politicians. But opponents maintain that involves a trade-off that shifts influence from elected officials to special interests and state agency staff.

Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, also has concerns about what he believes will be adding power to bureaucrats.

“The other consequence is state agencies and unelected bureaucrats will take on a bigger role in state government because of the lack of elected legislators that are knowledgeable on certain subject matter or agency rules,” Vetter said. “Remember, North Dakota is somewhat unique in that we have citizen Legislature that only meets 80 days every two years. In the eight-year term limit, each elected legislator will spend less than a year total in Bismarck. Whereas the unelected state officials are in Bismarck throughout the whole year. How this changes our state is yet to be seen.”

The changes term limits critics suggest may be coming in response to the impact on the legislative process include a potential change to annual legislative sessions, an increase in support staff or longer sessions than the current biannual 80 day calendar. Yet one Grand Forks pol hopes the new system will shake things up.

In the eyes of House Minority Leader Rep. Zac Ista, D-Grand Forks, the reasons North Dakota voters approved the measure are clear.

“It’s no wonder why the voters made this change when we continue to learn more about the deleted public records from the attorney general’s office, the sweetheart real estate deal benefiting a sitting Republican legislator, and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund overseas trips where heinous federal crimes allegedly occurred,” he wrote. “I hope that the enacted term limits — which I believe to be clear in their language and intent — can be one way to curb the worst excesses of the GOP supermajority.”

There’s still years to go before the jury will be in on term limits in North Dakota, one of 16 states to impose such restrictions. After all, 2024 will mark the first statewide election held since residents resoundingly voted to cap the time their representatives spend in Bismarck.