Ethics measure supporters urge defeat of North Dakota Republican implementation bill
BISMARCK — A fight over new ethics rules leaped from the ballot box to the North Dakota state Capitol hallways Friday, Jan. 18, as Measure 1 supporters called for the defeat of an implementation bill introduced by Republican leadership.
In a news release, North Dakotans for Public Integrity said House Bill 1521 restricts transparency, imposes “almost meaningless penalties” and provides inadequate funding for a new ethics commission, among other shortcomings. The group successfully pushed for new anti-corruption language to be inserted into the state constitution in November.
“Voting for HB 1521 would violate lawmakers’ oath to uphold the constitution,” the Measure 1 backers said in a statement. “The results will include less ethical government and wasted taxpayer dollars on lawsuits.”
North Dakotans for Public Integrity said the bill “cannot be repaired by amendment” and urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to defeat it. The bill is sponsored by the Republican majority leaders in both chambers, Rep. Chet Pollert and Sen. Rich Wardner.
Pollert said Friday he wasn't surprised by the opposition from Measure 1 supporters.
"I think the original measure is too restrictive," Pollert said, arguing it wouldn't "allow regular citizens of the state of North Dakota to feel comfortable coming in and testifying without being called a lobbyist."
The House and Senate have formed bipartisan committees to work through implementation legislation, and initial meetings are expected soon.
North Dakotans for Public Integrity President Dina Butcher questioned the appointment of Fargo Republican Rep. Jim Kasper, a Measure 1 critic, as chairman of the House's ethics committee. She said he has been a "poster child for why there needs to be an ethics commission,” which the constitution now allows to investigate public official malfeasance.
Kasper has previously been the subject of news stories about speaking trips on internet poker legislation, which he defended Friday as ethical while decrying "false accusations" against him. He said his opposition to the ballot measure won't affect how he approaches its implementation.
"I'm looking forward to a really good, open, transparent hearing," Kasper said. He hopes to pass legislation that doesn't "inhibit free speech or the right of assembly" but still honors "the intention Measure 1 to the best of our ability."
Still, Friday's statement signaled what could be a contentious process to enact the new ethics rules. Butcher said the Republican bill is an attempt to "override" the people's vote and hoped lawmakers would instead take up separate legislation that Fargo Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern crafted with their input.
"Obviously that would be what we would prefer, but this is a leadership bill and that speaks very strongly with members," she said.