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As session's end looms, North Dakota lawmakers look to wrap up ethics bills

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, speaks on the Senate floor on Thursday, April 11, as Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, listens. Hogue is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, which may bring an ethics bill to the Senate floor this week. By Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, says a salad from a lobbyist won't ever influence him.

"Nor a steak," the longtime legislator said.

House and Senate ethics committees are nearing the end of work on two bills in the session's final days to implement provisions of Article XIV of North Dakota's Constitution, brought by a 54 percent majority of votes on Measure 1 in 2018.

The initiated constitutional amendment includes provisions restricting lobbyists, prohibiting gifts and establishes an ethics commission, generally aimed at accountability of state elected officials and legislators.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, said the committee continues to propose and consider amendments on the House ethics bill, which may reach the Senate floor for a vote Monday, April 15, or Tuesday, April 16.

And Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, who leads the House Ethics Committee, said his committee will next meet on Thursday with a better idea then of the Senate's actions.

Laying groundwork

Hogue said discussion around the ethics bills has involved civil and criminal sanctions, definitions, intent, funding and what degree of autonomy to allow for the five-member ethics commission to be unanimously named by the governor and Senate majority and minority leaders.

"We think the commission should have more autonomy," Hogue said. "We think they should be able to hire their own attorney, lease their own office space, do their own investigations."

Kasper said he anticipates some compromise for the final product, but also said he would have liked Measure 1's backers to have testified before his committee.

"We'd like to ask them questions, but they haven't had the courage to be in front of our committee," Kasper said.

Ellen Chaffee, the Democrat co-chair of North Dakotans for Public Integrity behind Measure 1, said she hasn't been able to attend all the hearings, but "I trust the process."

"It's something I care about, but I'm just a citizen at this point," Chaffee said.

She said she continues to prefer the Senate bill over the House bill, hoping for an outcome consistent with the Constitution.

"Our main goals are nothing unconstitutional and a well-positioned ethics commission to fulfill its responsibilities," Chaffee said.

The Senate bill's proposed two-year funding for an ethics commission − about $517,000 − is "an absolute bare minimum" but "enough to get started," according to Chaffee.

Measure 1 backers' research found $1.5 million per year would be a "reasonable yet prudent budget," she added.

"If more is needed, there'll be a case for it and there'll process for it and it'll go forward," Chaffee said.

Uncertainty

Though the gift prohibition is not effective until Jan. 5, 2021, lawmakers agree there is "a fog" or perceived ambiguity over what's acceptable, as the ethics commission's rules and penalties have yet to be made. The ethics commission will adopt its own rules, with public input.

"I think everybody is doing their best to try to live up to what is now part of our state Constitution," said Geoff Simon, a lobbyist who represents the Western Dakota Energy Association and led the opposition to Measure 1 in 2018, criticizing it as vague and potentially problematic.

Wardner said he's sensed about a 60 percent decrease this session in lobbyist meals due to "uncertainty" over Measure 1's mandates.

"I would say the lobbyists have really backed off," he said.

Hogue said he has his own boundary on influence perceived as undue.

If lobbyists want to take us out to dinner the night before a bill is voted on, that's where I draw the line," he said. "Because not only are you getting the meal, there is a significant appearance of impropriety of 'Why are they taking me out tonight?'"

Simon said lobbyists should be able to interact and hobnob with lawmakers. Measure 1's passage has chilled those interactions, he said.

"Frankly, these legislative receptions and social functions and other opportunities − these are wonderful opportunities to get to know people on a personal level," said Simon, who has attended and observed the ethics committee meetings.

Endgame

Wardner and House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, each said they don't expect the ethics bills to prolong the session, which they'd like to wrap at 75 of 80 allotted days. Monday is day 67.

Pollert said he expects a melding of both bills, but added he doesn't expect the Measure 1 backers to like the final product, "no matter what we do."

"We’ve got to strike a balance in there and take it from there, and that’s what we’re trying to do," Pollert said.

Kasper said he hasn't seen breaches of ethics among fellow legislators, but nevertheless is working to accommodate Measure 1's mandates.

"The fact of the matter is, I’ve been here 18 years. I haven’t seen ethical concerns with any of my colleagues for the whole 18 years," said Kasper, who has been criticized for trips he took in 2005 to Montreal, Las Vegas and Antigua. Kasper maintains the trips were not improper and were invitations to share information about legislation.

Hogue said he expects compromise in the days ahead, though the bills are complex and unlike usual legislation.

"It's not about a little appropriation sitting over here or some other policy," he said. "It's top of mind for all elected public officials, of which there are 160 or so."

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