BISMARCK - A package of bills introduced by North Dakota House Democrats aims to bring more transparency and accountability to state government.
The proposals include forming an ethics committee for the North Dakota Legislature, making more public records accessible online, prohibiting foreign campaign contributions and preventing candidates from using campaign funds for personal use.
"Our goal with this package of good governance bills is really to show the public that their elected officials are open and transparent and want to create an atmosphere of trust," said Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo.
House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, is again proposing a bill related to an ethics committee after similar attempts have failed during the past three legislative sessions.
This year, House Bill 1431 adds language to an existing state code that Mock says isn't enforced, which states that Legislative Management shall appoint an ethics committee each biennium.
The bill adds language requiring the committee to include Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate. The bill also proposes that legislative management study the rules and procedures governing a legislative ethics committee during the 2017-18 interim.
"Overwhelmingly, the public believes there should be some level of oversight of their elected officials," Mock said. "And we completely agree."
North Dakota is one of eight states that does not have an independent ethics commission with jurisdiction over members of the Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
House Bill 1431 has a hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, before the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said Republicans also are working on proposals related to an ethics committee that will be introduced next week, likely in the Senate.
"We're chasing a problem that we don't have," Carlson said. "If they want to continue to do that, we'll make sure it's reasonable and enforceable and be done with it."
Another bill sponsored by Mock that has bipartisan support is House Bill 1234, which would prohibit state candidates from accepting foreign campaign contributions.
The Federal Election Campaign Act bars foreign nationals from making financial donations in connection with federal, state or local elections. But North Dakota law does not specifically outlaw foreign campaign contributions.
"We think this is good practice to put this in state code," Mock said.
Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, and former Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently refunded campaign contributions from a Canadian businessman after a complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The bill, sponsored by legislative leaders in both the House and Senate, received a do-pass recommendation in committee and will likely go to the floor for a vote next week.
Other proposals include:
• House Bill 1344 prohibits the personal use of campaign contributions.
"It gives the transparency to people who in good faith are financially supporting people being in office," said prime sponsor Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, D-Fargo.
• House Bill 1410 would make reports on lobbyist expenditures available online.
Lobbyists are required to report expenditures on elected officials if they exceed $60 on one person in one day. The bill introduced by would make the information available through the Secretary of State's website. "We're just trying to align with Gov. (Doug) Burgum's vision of finding ways to modernize government and make things more efficient and streamlined," Hanson said.
• House Bill 1232, also introduced by Hanson, would make campaign contribution reporting for legislative candidates consistent with reporting requirements for statewide candidates.
• House Bill 1418, introduced by Mock, would make the statement of interest form filed by all candidates for office available online. Currently the documents that show an official's business interests or potential conflicts of interest have to be requested from county auditors or the Secretary of State's Office, depending on the position.
"Right now, it's all public record. It's just not conveniently available. If we're going to be transparent as elected officials, we should be conveniently transparent," Mock said.
Dennis Cooley, a North Dakota State University professor and director of the Northern Plains Ethics Institute, has reviewed many of the good governance bills and said they seem to have minor changes that would promote trust in government.
"The unfortunate part of the real world is most people do what they're supposed to do. But we always have a few bad apples who spoil it for everyone," Cooley said. "These rules protect those who are doing what they're supposed to do while going after the people who are not upholding the trust that's been given to them by their constituents."