North Dakota group backs government ethics overhaul measure
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Supporters of amending the North Dakota constitution to include a sweeping government ethics overhaul turned in a proposed initiative Wednesday to put the issue on the November ballot.
With voters’ approval, 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.
“Transparency is good for everybody,” said Dina Butcher, a Bismarck Republican and co-chair of the bipartisan North Dakotans for Public Integrity. “This is not a political issue. It’s just common sense accountability.”
Ellen Chaffee, a Democrat and former president of Mayville and Valley City State universities, also is a co-chair of the more than 30-member committee. Neither Butcher nor Chaffee could point to any specific corruption examples when they turned in the three-page initiative to Secretary of State Al Jaeger at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
North Dakota Democratic lawmakers have been unsuccessfully pushing for years to establish an ethics commission to investigate alleged acts of wrongdoing by politicians. North Dakota is one of only a handful of states without such a panel.
The Republican-led Legislature has thwarted efforts to form an ethics panel, saying lawmakers already follow high standards of conduct.
The North Dakota Legislature does have a broadly worded ethics policy in its official rules, including a requirement for periodic classes for lawmakers on ethical issues. Also, state law has a number of restrictions that apply to legislators, such as a ban on using knowledge gained as a lawmaker for personal gain.
The wide-ranging proposal also would bar gifts from lobbyists to many public officials, and it would prohibit elected officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving state government.
The amendment would forbid political candidates from making personal use of campaign funds. The Legislature, however, passed a law last year that closes a loophole that could have allowed politicians to pocket campaign cash. Butcher said the amendment would take it further, “enshrining” the prohibition in the state constitution.
A similar constitutional amendment targeting government corruption has been approved to go on South Dakota’s ballot in November.
South Dakota voters passed a similar law in 2016, but Republican lawmakers repealed it just months later, citing constitutional concerns. If passed, the new constitutional amendment would be protected from legislative changes and would extend safeguards to future ballot measures.
Both efforts in the Dakotas were backed by Represent.Us, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit aimed at passing anti-corruption laws.
Butcher said the state group only got input from the national group. Work on the amendment was done by the sponsors during weekly meetings over the past year.
North Dakota allows residents to put proposed state laws and constitutional amendments directly to a vote if backers of the initiative can gather enough support. For a constitutional amendment to go directly on the ballot, an initiative petition needs at least 26,904 signatures; a proposed state law needs 13,452.
The North Dakota group would have to gather the signatures by July 9 to get it on the November ballot.
Associated Press writer James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this report.