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North Dakota lawmakers mull bills aimed at ethics reform

January 31, 2019
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Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, listens during the initial meeting of the Senate Ethics Commission in the Brynhild Haugland Room of the North Dakota state capitol in Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Mathern has for years attempted to create an ethics panel for lawmakers in North Dakota, one of only a handful of states without one. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Legislature has a dismal approval rating and most voters believe the state’s political system is broken and needs sweeping changes, a primary backer of a successful citizen-led ethics reform measure told lawmakers Wednesday.

“The people of North Dakota want you to hear them,” said Ellen Chaffee, vice president of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, a group that sponsored the constitutional amendment aimed at ethics reform.

The initiative billed as an “anti-corruption amendment” would ban foreign money from elections, restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission, among other provisions.

The Legislature set aside the Capitol’s biggest meeting room on Wednesday afternoon to hear testimony on competing Republican and Democratic bills that would develop rules so they conform with voters’ wishes. The bills, however, are vastly different in their approach on how to adhere to the wide-ranging initiative and will require several more hearings during the session, legislative leaders said.

Dina Butcher, a citizen and one of the sponsors of the initiated measure, said in an interview that the GOP version “guts” its intent and continues to restrict transparency, setting “almost meaningless penalties” and making “a mockery of the people’s vote.”

Measure backers largely have agreed with the provisions in the Democratic bill but have signaled a possible lawsuit depending on how the legislation turns out.

Campaign filings show the backers of the initiative have attracted nearly $420,000, much of it from left-leaning out-of-state groups.

About 60 people attended the back-to-back hearings, about a third of whom where lobbyists. Some lobbyists, all of whom opposed the citizen initiated measure before it went to voters, supported the GOP-sponsored bill.

Penalties proposed for some violations range from $100 in the GOP bill to $10,000 in the Democratic version, sponsored by Tim Mathern of Fargo, who has for years attempted to create an ethics panel for lawmakers in North Dakota, one of only a handful of states without one.

The voter-approved initiative calls for the five-member commission to be chosen by Senate majority and minority leaders and the governor. It may not contain lawmakers.

The Republican-led Legislature has rebuffed repeated attempts for such a commission, saying lawmakers always have followed high standards of conduct.

Unlike the GOP version, Mathern’s bill would require, among other things, disclosure of all gifts to politicians and make public allegations against lawmakers under investigation for wrongdoing.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and House counterpart Chet Pollert have maintained their bill “enacts the will of the voters while providing certainty to North Dakotans that they can participate in the democratic process.”

“The goal of this legislation is not to make (the measure) more palatable for lobbyists and politicians,” Pollert told fellow lawmakers. “The goal of this bill is to clarify the regulations found within the measure so that all North Dakotans can participate freely in the democratic process.”

Wardner described the GOP bill as a starting point.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s North Dakota chapter said Wednesday it doesn’t oppose an ethics commission, but it still has “serious concerns” about the implementation of the measure in North Dakota, mirroring the GOP’s assertion that it violates the First Amendment and restricts political speech and advocacy.

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Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, listens during the initial meeting of the Senate Ethics Commission in the Brynhild Haugland Room of the North Dakota state capitol in Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Mathern has for years attempted to create an ethics panel for lawmakers in North Dakota, one of only a handful of states without one. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)