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Legislative lobbyists navigate through new restrictions

The pandemic and ban on gifts to lawmakers have changed how lobbyists go about their daily work.

N.D. Capitol building.jpg
The North Dakota State Capitol building in Bismarck. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
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BISMARCK -- A loss of personal interaction. That’s how Levi Andrist, lobbyist and president of the North Dakota Lobbyists Association, describes the change in how lobbyists work compared to previous years.

“The halls are, generally speaking, very quiet as compared to previous sessions,” he said.

Lobbyists, like lawmakers and everyone else in the Capitol, have to follow the coronavirus guidelines, such as wearing a mask and limiting personal contact, and abide by new ethics guidelines banning gifts.

“Our culture is really based on looking people in the eye and shaking hands,” Andrist said. “So it is unfortunate that the pandemic has thrown a wrench in that.”

The political process is really based on relationships and policy, he said. Now, as most people can’t look each other in the eye or shake hands, it makes it more difficult to discuss public policy.

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Andrist said there have been some positives to the new layout, with online participation being one of them.

“Access to subject matter experts that may not be able to come to North Dakota amidst the pandemic has been really critical for our clients,” he said. “It is an excellent tool that I think many committees have found valuable.”

Levi Andrist

Andrist said his firm prefers to have experts for its testimony, and allowing them to virtually testify has given them a great advantage.

“When you have a subject matter expert being able to virtually testify, the difference there in comparison to previous years is flying from Washington, D.C., to Bismarck, N.D., for the day,” he said. “I think it's a great advantage to have the virtual option, but at the same time we do miss the personal interactions that make public policy-making fun.”

John Olson, lobbyist and owner of Olson Effertz Lobbying & Consulting, said virtual participation has made it easier for his clients across the state to participate this year.

“It's a good thing, there are still some obstacles, but for the most part I think it has been pretty successful,” he said.

However, the loss of personal contact has made it difficult to go about day-to-day issues.

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“If there is a little problem going on, it is harder to solve than just walking up to the clerk or chairman and getting an issue resolved,” he said.

Olson said meaningful conversations are harder to have this year, noting that he sees it in every business.

“You are much better able to gauge human response; if there are problems with communication it is always best to address those on a personal basis,” he said.

Lobbyists also had another change to make, Olson said, as a ban on all gifts to legislators began this year.

North Dakota voters passed a ballot measure in 2018, said Dave Thiele, executive director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, which resulted in the gift ban to elected officials.

Thiele said the commission was created in 2019 and was tasked with defining the measure.

The language of the measure prohibited any gifts between any public officials and lobbyists, said Thiele. The only exception is if a lawmaker and lobbyist are immediate family.

Thiele said lawmakers and lobbyists have not been troubled by the new change.

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“[Lobbyists and lawmakers have said], ‘We can live with whatever the answer is, we just need to know the rules,’” he said.

Andrist said he was pleased the commission went about it in an open way.

“[The ethics commission] have tried to create a culture of compliance, not one of gotchas,” he said. “That to me is very healthy for any regulated community.”

The usual gifts Andrist would see lobbyists give would be trinkets and small gifts representing a company or organization -- “the mugs of the local association, or political subdivision, the squishy balls, those types of knick-knacks,” he said.

Thiele said the dialogue between citizens and legislators is still important, and he recognizes lobbyists are a key component in that.

“Events, where it is more than just a lobbyist and elected official, [need to] have an education component and then they simply have to report to [the commission] the who, what, when, where and why,” he said.

Olson said the conversations with lawmakers, whether it be at lunch or dinner, have been some of the most important in the past.

“There was always opportunity after the business and stress of the day, to get together on a social basis to have those conversations in a more relaxed setting,” he said “Those afforded a lot of opportunity to give and take on a personal basis.”

However, Olson attributes much of the fall-off in social interaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think they both go hand in hand … it is probably due as much to the pandemic as the gift prohibition,” he said.

As the session goes on, especially with the new federal administration in office, Olson said he believes agricultural and energy organizations will want to hold gatherings with lawmakers, while following the new reporting guidelines.

Not all lawmakers are pleased with lobbyists not being able to pay for lunches and dinners anymore.

According to the Associated Press , Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, District 39, has sponsored HB 1424, which would give legislators who live outside Bismarck taxpayer-funded money to pay for meals.

Penalties for not abiding by the regulations depend on how much a gift is worth, Thiele said. Generally, the civil penalty would be two times the monetary value of the gift.

Thiele said he wants to make sure the process is as open and easy for all lobbyists and lawmakers.

“If someone makes a mistake we want them to contact us, and we’ll fix it, educate and move on,” he said.

Dylan Sherman is a reporting intern with the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

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