BISMARCK -- Fourteen North Dakota lawmakers are attending a national conference in Puerto Rico, one of several, similar events throughout the year that legislative leaders say are necessary to advance policy.
The Council of State Governments National Conference began Wednesday, Dec. 4, in San Juan and wraps up Saturday, Dec. 7. No costs were yet available for the trip, as those in attendance will submit vouchers for reimbursement when they return.
Twenty North Dakota lawmakers and nine legislative staff attended the four-day National Conference of State Legislatures summit in August in Nashville, costing about $90,000. The Legislature this year also paid about $130,000 to the national conference for dues, or "professional development," according to an online checkbook.
'What is coming from it'
The Puerto Rico conference agenda includes sessions on topics ranging from cybersecurity to marijuana policy to energy -- all topics before North Dakota lawmakers in the last year. The agenda also included tours of the Casa Bacardi rum distillery on Friday night.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who leads a powerful committee of lawmakers that guides the Legislature's interim work, said the conferences are important events to network with lawmakers from other states, share information and advance ideas for legislation. He's also asked lawmakers to file detailed reports of their out-of-state meetings.
"South Dakota is down here. Montana is down here. I've talked to those folks, so it's interesting to see what their challenges are, and so you get a network of stuff that's going on," Pollert said Thursday by phone from San Juan. "I think it's important."
"We shouldn't treat North Dakota as an island," he added.
But one observer sees more that can be done for transparency of lawmakers' out-of-state meetings.
"The system needs to be designed to inform everybody as to what they're actually doing and what they're actually learning and what is coming from it," said Dustin Gawrylow, managing director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network.
Pollert has requested lawmakers in the 2019-20 interim file post-travel reports with the Legislative Council detailing what they learned that could advance legislation.
It's a practice done before, but Pollert has asked for more details, for "just more transparency." He said he isn't able to read every report, but "a lot of reports are really well written."
"I know -- and I won't say any names -- some reports need to be a little better clarified, and so hopefully that will happen," Pollert said. He also will fill out a report.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, agrees with requesting detailed information about out-of-state meetings.
"We need to be responsible," he said. "So if somebody like yourself wants to see, it should be respectable. It shouldn't be just a bunch of nothing."
Lawmakers also share information from out-of-state meetings with their caucuses, he added. North Dakota lawmakers attend three or four national or regional meetings a year, mostly of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments.
The Bismarck Tribune in September obtained the post-conference reports filed by lawmakers who went to Nashville. Some were brief, as short as a few typed sentences. Others were longer, with handwritten notes filling two pages.
Gawrylow, who also has seen the reports, said he'd like lawmakers' conference materials made public, given their purpose.
"I think that the public should have access to the stuff that they are getting because that is the material that is influencing public policy," Gawrylow said. "And that that should be as subject to open records as the presentations that happen at a legislative hearing."
He said he'd like to see disclosed who originally proposed legislation, be it a constituent's idea or an out-of-state or national group's model language.
"It's not necessarily that it's a bad thing to do, it's just there should be some transparency on where is this idea coming from," he said.
'Monitored very carefully'
The Legislative Council won't reimburse lawmakers for out-of-state travel until Pollert, chairman of the powerful Legislative Management, has pre-approved the travel.
Lawmakers may receive their $181 per diem for approved interim meetings.
"As with all other state officials and employees, legislators are eligible to receive allowances for meals, lodging, and other expenses for approved travel in furtherance of their official duties, subject to statutory limits," said Claire Ness, Legal Division counsel for the Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal and legal service.
The whole 141-member Legislature can't attend a conference at once. Wardner said such events limit attendance from each chamber and party, which is "monitored very carefully."
Seven senators and seven representatives from North Dakota are in Puerto Rico, 11 of them Republicans, three Democrats.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, was part of a group that in November visited over 10 days with policy makers and business and industry leaders in Japan, sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders.
He did not seek reimbursement for costs associated with the trip as he "wasn't there on behalf of the state, specifically." But he documented each day on social media to be transparent, he said.
"It was packed every day," Boschee said. He thinks there's "good scrutiny" from legislative leaders of out-of-state travel reimbursements.
Wardner said North Dakota lawmakers miss out on major policy discussions, some of which the state leads on, if they don't attend. He pointed to Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, leading the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board.
"If we don't go, we're not at the table," Wardner said.