“Finish your caviar,” I admonished the kids at the dinner table the other night, “There are starving legislators in Bismarck.”
“Let them eat cake,” India sniffed. She's studying French this semester.
It's true about the starving legislators. I was in Bismarck the other day and saw a guy holding a sign: “Will legislate for food.” Few things make me weep as much as lawmakers forced to panhandle on street corners. Or television commercials featuring shivering, emaciated legislators chained to a post in the snow while Sarah McLachlan sings dirges.
Things are looking up, though. A bipartisan bill, HB 1424, would allow legislators to be reimbursed $35 per day for meals so, in the words of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, he doesn't have to eat spaghetti out of a can. There's one thing I don't understand, however ... if my crack research team (of me) has it right, Kempenich is a rancher by trade, so why is any self-respecting cattleman eating spaghetti in the first place? Real cowboys don't go to a restaurant and order the chicken. Colonel Sanders doesn't order the Beef Wellington. Shouldn't Kempenich be eating Vienna sausages at least? There might be beef in that.
All I know for sure is the situation in Bismarck was not so dire back when the free market was allowed to operate at the capitol — before busybodies like North Dakota voters created an Ethics Commission that forbids legislators from accepting gifts like lobster dinners from lobbyists. Now, $35 a day may not sound like a lot, but that would add up to a two-year cost to taxpayers of $424,000 — about the cost of a semi-load of SpaghettiOs.
This is what you might call one of those laws with unintended consequences. At least before ethics got involved, oil lobbyists rewarded our legislators for sweetheart tax breaks with lavish dinners. Now, if this bill passes, we'll get stuck with the tab for the meals and the tax breaks.
What do legislators get paid, you wonder? About $1,300 a week or roughly $21,000 during the session, depending on how long it lasts. They get about $520 a month when not in session and about $17,000 annually in insurance benefits. In this pandemic-ravaged economy, one could do worse.
I suppose we could let them eat cake — whatever that means — but that might involve a bake sale, and frankly, the last time I made brownies for a bake sale, I forgot to set the timer, and they more or less turned into building materials. Somebody at the bake sale labeled them “dunkers.”
Maybe Sarah McLachlan could do a benefit concert. She's Canadian so I don't think she qualifies as a lobbyist. I'd rather have Neil Young, though. We'll have to see how that bill to legalize recreational marijuana shakes out first, though. I envision promotional posters featuring Keith Kempenich looking cold and skinny, standing in front of a herd of uneaten cattle.
Perhaps the simplest and most humane solution would be for the voters who created this awful crisis to hold a canned drive at the capitol. I don't know if they'll accept SpaghettiOs.
Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of this publication, nor Forum Communications ownership.