by Soo Asheim
Lloyd Omdahl began working inside the gov-
ernment of North Dakota in 1954 as the Assistant Director of Public Safety. During his first foray into the bowels of state politics Mr. Omdahl served as the ranking campaign publicist for both Senator Quentin Burdick and Governor William Guy.
After Governor Guy was elected, Mr. Omdahl joined Governor Guy’s staff where he served as an Administrative Assistant from 1961 – 1963. Upon the untimely death of North Dakota’s Tax Commissioner in 1963, Lloyd was appointed to fulfill the late Tax Commissioner’s position until 1964, when he ran for the elected position and won.
In 1966 Lloyd Omdahl returned to the governor’s staff as Administration Director until he joined the staff at the University of North Dakota as a Political Science Professor specializing in state and local government, federalism and political parties. From there it was a short trip for Omdahl to become the Assistant Director of UND’s Bureau of Government Research (aka: Bureau of Governmental Affairs), where he was named Director of the Bureau of Governmental Affairs in 1969.
In 1975 Mr. Omdahl was named as Director of Accounts and Purchases within the administration of William Guy. Today many of the same functions Lloyd Omdahl was in charge of as Director of Accounts and Purchases are housed in the Office of Management and Budget.
When Lt. Governor Ruth Meiers passed away in 1987, Governor George Sinner named Lloyd Omdahl to fill the vacancy left by Meiers, and Omdahl became the Lt. Governor under George Sinner. Lloyd ran successfully for the position of Lt. Governor with George Sinner in the 1988 election, where Mr. Omdahl remained serving at the pleasure of the Governor until 1992. Mr. Omdahl returned to academia at UND until his retirement in 1995.
During his years as a University of North Dakota professor and his stint as Lt. Governor, the second highest office of North Dakota, Lloyd Omdahl wrote a weekly commentary for many of the state’s daily and weekly newspapers.
Few notables have served the public sector of North Dakota in as many capacities as Lloyd Omdahl has. In the last forty years, North Dakota has grown from being the rugged land of cowboys and farmers to an oil boom state promoting research and technology, enabling its agricultural producers to feed the world. We wanted to know what someone who helped lay the foundation upon which North Dakota has moved forward into its present position thinks regarding what today’s legislature is doing, how they can improve things and what should they do to further North Dakota’s standing for future population growth. We asked a few questions often asked by North Dakota citizens, and these are the answers Mr. Omdahl gave, rich with historic experience and understanding of what went before, what is today and how North Dakota can improve.
SA: Mr. Omdahl, why does North Dakota’s body of government only meet every two years? When only convening every two years, does that not put North Dakota at a disadvantage when the Federal government is constantly changing rules and regulations the state needs to adhere to as well? In your opinion, is it time the Legislature began meeting every year, or would that only cost taxpayers more money yet gain essentially the same results as they are now getting with the Legislature meeting every two years?
LO: Legislative meetings. In the early 60s, 19 states were meeting annually. Today, only four states are trying to keep up with the federal government and societal needs with biennial sessions – Montana, Nevada, Texas and North Dakota.
During the 1970-72 constitutional convention, a provision was adopted making available to the Legislature 80 meeting days that could be spent during the biennium any way the Legislature wished. In other words, the Legislature could meet annually today by splitting the 80 days between two years. Instead of taking advantage of the new flexible system, the Legislature has continued with its biennial session.
Other reasons may be offered for the refusal to change, but the real reason is that a change in the meeting schedule would inconvenience the members now serving. A few may not be able to serve in a flexible schedule. For others, it would upset their every-other-winter southern schedules. They have chosen a system that is best for them, even though it may not be the best for the state.
The national government is moving every day. Much of the federal activity requires a state response. North Dakota is often playing catch-up. To compensate for the lack of plenary sessions, the Legislature has delegated interim committees to make decisions. It has also written “triggers” in laws, e.g. if more money becomes available between sessions, Dakota University is authorized to build a library, etc. etc. Other matters are left until the regular session.
The problem of biennial sessions is compounded by the fact that the Legislature gets into micro-managing government. To assert its authority, it takes on more duties than a biennial body can handle.
SA: So many small farming communities have lost the populations they enjoyed in the 60’s and 70’s. In order for the small farming communities to not completely disappear, what type of jobs could be brought to the smaller towns where people who would like to live in a rural area can still make a decent living and have schools for their children?
LO: Jobs in small towns. This problem is so knotty that if it could be solved, someone would have done it long ago. Businesses, unless homegrown, are reluctant to invest in small towns because they believe that small towns are a dying breed. In their minds, small towns are a high risk investment.
Many communities across the state have tried homegrown industries. Local folks have invested money in food processing plants that lacked sufficient capital and an effective marketing strategy. Both are crucial in the world of tough economic competition. Breaking into the chain retail systems is not easy.
Even though it is an uphill struggle for homegrown businesses, if the founders can keep their expectations realistic and limited, they will have more luck getting a 5-6 employee businesses going instead of one employing 100.
SA: What might the state of North Dakota consider offering its residents and future residents with the excess money it has from oil revenues to stay in North Dakota that it presently is not offering? Examples that have been offered in the past have been tax free tuition for college, building more winter vacation and tourists attractions, cut the sales tax on clothing or income tax? What are your thoughts about this?
LO: North Dakota does not have much appeal to the outside business world, primarily because of its image and climate. We cannot bank on the outside entrepreneurs to come in to offer the kinds of jobs that will keep North Dakotans here.
To break out of this dependence on outsiders, North Dakota needs to look at its constitutional authority to engage in economic activities of all kinds. We need to use our excess money to fund feasibility studies for a variety of economic possibilities. When we find one that looks good, we should take it to a company engaged in that line of business and tell them: “This is feasible; here’s the proof, now we will let you develop this and, if you don’t, we will use the state to do it without you.”
We should be using excess oil money to provide an educational system that is second to none. There is no excuse for salting money away when our children are being deprived of the kind of education that will make them competitive on the world scene. The argument is that we need to save for future generations. What about this one?
We need retraining for teachers; modern technology for the grades; remedial courses for failing students, and the lowest possible tuition for colleges and universities.
SA: Someone recently suggested on a talk radio show what North Dakota might consider doing is secede from the United States because North Dakota has the land and ability to feed itself, oil to sell the rest of the world and a very large contingency of trained military personnel for its security. Can you explain why that would not work?
LO: The idea that North Dakota is self-sufficient enough to secede from the Union is ridiculous. We may have a lot of money but our well-being still depends on the federal government. We have major water crises at Devils Lake and the Red River Valley. The prosperity of our agriculture rests on federal subsidies. The trained military personnel, including most of the National Guard, are on the federal payroll. Our highway system depends on federal money. Besides, secession is not a constitutional option, as the Civil War proved. The suggestion of secession – and other foolish thinking – is why I never listen to talk radio.
SA: Mr. Omdahl, as North Dakota has always been your home and the place you have vested so much of your time and heart to, as my last question, please tell the young people who are considering going elsewhere why you stayed and what you envision North Dakota’s future to be in the next ten to twenty years.
LO: Why North Dakota? During the years I attended UND, the winters were exceptionally cold. For four years, I swore that I would leave the state as soon as I got my degree. In my fifth year, while working on a master’s degree, I realized that North Dakota was a land of opportunity in more ways than money. In a small state where individuals can progress on the basis of their effort, everyone who wants to be someone can be someone. In a small state, every individual counts. I decided that was more important than money.
I passed up several opportunities to leave the state for twice the money but North Dakota values kept me here.