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Geoff Simon, a North Dakota lobbyist who opposed a constitutional ethics measure, listens to a legislative committee debate its implementation Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the state Capitol. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Now or later? Disagreements emerge over how quickly to act on new North Dakota ethics rules

BISMARCK — Lobbyists who opposed adding anti-corruption language to the North Dakota constitution are urging lawmakers to quickly define the new rules to clear up any confusion about proper Capitol conduct, while the ballot measure’s supporters seek a slower approach.

The stark differences over implementing Measure 1 have been on display in the initial hearings convened at the state Capitol, where lawmakers have wrestled with clarifying the terms that voters recently carved into the state constitution.

“There’s great consternation about this,” said Fargo Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern, the sponsor of an implementation bill introduced with the support of Measure 1 backers. “And the best way to deal with that is to give people an opportunity to vent and to express their views.”

While Mathern maintains legislators should deliberate during the interim period between sessions because some constitutional provisions don’t go into effect right away, others said acting this session will give more immediate clarity to the public and policymakers.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference and Measure 1 opponent, said although new financial disclosure requirements don’t go into effect for three years, donations that would be subject to the rules could be made before then. An attorney for the group that pushed the ballot measure, North Dakotans for Public Integrity, disputed that argument.

“We need to know what this measure means and cannot — and should not — have to wait for an interim study committee to figure it out,” said Geoff Simon, another lobbyist who campaigned against the ballot proposal.

The constitution also requires a yet-to-be-appointed ethics commission to adopt rules for a lobbyist gift ban, and calls for lawmakers and the commission to come up with guidelines to ensure state officials avoid the appearance of bias.

As introduced, Mathern’s bill seeks a legislative study of those provisions, as well as the financial disclosure requirements, because they aren’t effective for two or three years. Separate legislation introduced by Republican leadership would delay the effective date of some provisions but doesn’t include a study.

“We have an election in less than two years,” said House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington. “Why would we want this hanging over our heads?”

Another Republican-backed resolution seeks a legislative study of the new constitutional language.

North Dakotans for Public Integrity has urged lawmakers to defeat the Republican implementation bill because, they argued, it imposes meager penalties and provides inadequate funds for the ethics commission, among other shortcomings that render it unconstitutional.

Gregory Stites, a Bismarck attorney hired by the Measure 1 backers after the election, argued some lobbyists are pushing for a quicker implementation because the House bill was written favorably for them.

“They testified in favor of the House bill because they think that that satisfies their constituents,” Stites said. “And they’re afraid that if they wait, they won’t get what they want.”

Pollert and Simon denied that charge. In testimony last month, Pollert said his bill is meant to “clarify the regulations found within the measure so that all North Dakotans can participate freely and ethically in the democratic process.”

Special legislative committees considering the ethics bills will meet again at the state Capitol Tuesday.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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