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Wary of new ethics rules, North Dakota lobbyists rethink plans for legislator receptions

Russ Hanson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota, sits in his Bismarck office Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Some lobbying groups are rethinking plans to hold legislator socials after North Dakota voters passed a ballot measure etching new ethics rules into the state constitution.

Russ Hanson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota, said his organization decided against holding its social next year due to the “unknowns” stemming from Measure 1. Similarly, the Independent Community Banks of North Dakota canceled a legislator reception, the group’s President Barry Haugen said.

Industry group leaders cited measure language that prevents lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials. Although that provision isn’t effective for two years and includes exceptions for educational and social settings meant to “advance opportunities for North Dakota residents to meet with public officials,” lobbyists said they were taking a conservative approach to the new rules.

The canceled events appear to be some of the first tangible effects of the measure, which was supported by almost 54 percent of voters last month.

Greater North Dakota Chamber President and CEO Arik Spencer, whose group spearheaded the opposition to Measure 1, was unsure whether they would hold their legislative social early next year.

“You can characterize it as wining and dining if you want, but what these kind of socials provide is opportunities … for members of the organization and the general public to engage in conversation,” he said. “Very little lobbying ever actually happens at these."

North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness, the state’s top oil lobbyist, said his organization scaled back a recent joint event with the Lignite Energy Council to be a strictly educational session for lawmakers with no food, drinks or “trinkets” provided. He said his group also required elected officials to pay $10 to attend a Christmas social last week so the event couldn’t be construed as a “gift.”

But Dina Butcher, one of the ethics measure’s top backers, said industry groups were acting prematurely and following through with “scare tactics” undertaken during the campaign. The measure calls for a yet-to-be-formed ethics commission to adopt rules on lobbyist gifts, and the Legislature is responsible for setting "appropriate civil and criminal sanctions" for violating the guidelines.

“We are reaching out to try to get them to cooperate on going forward from here,” Butcher said. “They don’t need to do anything differently than they have done in the past this session.”

Measure supporters said North Dakota needed stronger ethical and transparency standards for state government officials, while opponents warned the proposal was poorly written and would restrict political speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, which opposed the measure, is still looking into potential litigation but “will wait to see what happens when the Legislature convenes in January,” spokeswoman Janna Farley said in an email.

There are 279 registered lobbyists in North Dakota representing 653 organizations, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said. They will seek to persuade legislators and testify during committee hearings on a range of issues during the session, which starts Jan. 3.

Hanson described lobbyists as “sources of information” about their respective industries and clients. He defended the socials as a way for his group's members to develop relationships with policymakers.

“Is there a bite to eat at that social? Yeah. And is there a bar there? Yeah,” he said. “I understand that somebody not involved in the process could look at that and think it is not above board, but having done this for 29 years, there really isn’t anything wrong with them.”

“Having said that, the voters have spoken and we’ll figure out what the rules are and go from there,” he added.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he has built relationships with constituents through industry socials. He hopes the ethics rules ultimately allow for the functions as long as they're open to all legislators.

"An open-air event like that where everyone's invited I don't think would be against the intent of what the voters wanted," he said.

Republican state Sen. Dick Dever of Bismarck said the future ethics commission members should establish "black and white" rules to leave no ambiguity about what's allowed. He acknowledged the gift provision doesn't go into effect until 2021, but he said "there's a lot of people (who are) gun shy."

“There’s certainly a concern about the perception,” Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said. “Even though it may not be effective now, the perception of these events or dinners or receptions continuing is probably not something they want to deal with.”

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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