ND legislative district cost: $1.2M for 10 years

DALE WETZEL - Associated Press
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North Dakota state Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, right, discusses the problems of drawing new legislative districts for the city of Mandan, N.D., as North Dakota state Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, left, listens on Thursday, July 21, 2011, during a meeting in the Roughrider Room of the North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. Cook and Lyson are part of a North Dakota legislative committee that is in charge of recommending a new legislative district plan to the North Dakota Legislature. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An analysis shows that adding new districts to the North Dakota Legislature would cost at least $1.2 million each over 10 years, though some lawmakers said Thursday that the cost would be worthwhile if more legislators resulted in improved representation.

"If it takes more districts to make it fair to our constituents, to the people that we represent, that's what we need to worry about, not ourselves," said Rep. Jerry Kelsh, D-Fullerton.

Kelsh, the Democratic minority leader, is a member of a legislative committee that is in charge of developing a new district plan to present to a special session of the Legislature. The session has not been scheduled, but it likely will be held in November.

The panel, which will finish its two-day meeting Friday at the state Capitol, was presented Thursday with a memo from its research staff estimating that each legislative district would cost taxpayers at least $1.2 million during the next 10 years.

North Dakota now has 47 legislative districts, each of which is represented by a senator and two House members. The Legislature has 141 lawmakers in all, and each new district would add three legislators to that total.

The analysis included each lawmaker's monthly salary, session pay, lodging and insurance expenses, as well as the costs of computer equipment and supplies.

The estimate is a minimum. It assumes lawmakers would not raise their own pay or housing allowances for the next 10 years, and that the cost of health insurance coverage would not increase.

Legislators may receive the same health coverage offered to state workers, at no added expense to them. The cost of the benefit has risen from $409 monthly to $887 in the past decade.

In drafting a new legislative district plan, the committee must decide not only the location of the new boundaries, but how many districts there should be. The North Dakota Constitution allows the Legislature to have as few as 40 districts, or as many as 54.

Some rural lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans, say it may be wise for the Legislature to add districts in its 2011 plan. Doing so would lower the number of people each lawmaker would represent, and could avoid forcing some rural districts that lost population during the last decade from having to greatly expand their territory, they argue.

Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, a committee member and the Senate's assistant majority leader, called the cost of adding districts "totally secondary" to the goal of "making sure we have a number of districts that provides good representation."

"Over a 10-year period, it's worth the amount of money to have the right number of districts, and make sure that these fit well," Christmann said.

Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the committee's chairman, said the cost of adding districts may be significant to "people who would point to that as an example of growth in government."

The Legislature is already smaller than it has been in many years. During the 1990s, the Legislature had 49 districts and 147 members. In the 1980s, it had 53 districts and 159 members.

"The current size ... is the smallest the Legislature has been in a long time," Holmberg said. "But (the cost) is a factor, and we felt it important that ... the public be aware, if the Legislature decides to increase it, this is what it's going to cost the taxpayers."