The Debate Over Ethics Reform Continues

State lawmakers continue to debate over ethics reform.

After voters approved Measure One, it went into the State Constitution as Article 14. But, the House and Senate both drafted bills to define the duties of an ethics commission, and there are still some big differences.

A big difference between House Bill 1521 and Senate Bill 2148 comes down to one word, ‘solely’. This has to do with the definitions of reporting where campaign funds come from.

Republican Senator David Hogue says, “I would disagree that that’s one of the biggest differences. I think it is a difference.”

The Senate Bill would add that word.

Senator Hogue explains, “If I’m a lobbyist for example and I come to a group of Legislators’ golf tournament, and I say, ‘Well, here’s $500’, for this golf tournament. But I got a round of golf out of it, and I got a meal out of it, so it wasn’t solely for a political purpose.”

Democratic Senator Tim Mathern disagrees and thinks all contributions should be reported, including gifts from lobbyists.

Senator Mathern shares, “A gift is not legal. The gift is defined in the article, and for the legislature to define a gift as different than the constitution, makes it unconstitutional.”

The Senate Bill will also add penalties for lawmakers who use campaign funds for personal use.

According to Measure One, the Legislature had up to three years to come up with a ethics bill. Senator Mathern says because they wrote the bills within the first year, mistakes are likely.

Mathern and Ellen Chaffee with North Dakotans for Public Integrity say they’d like to see a study implemented in one of the bills.

Senator Mathern adds, “And maybe developing an education program to help public officials, to help lobbyists, to help citizens understand ethics in government.”

Chaffee helped draft measure one.

The North Dakotans for Public Integrity Vice President shares, “Although the goals are simple, the devil can be in the details. And that’s why the amendment allows time for the Legislature and the ethics commission to figure out the details.”

Chaffee told me she thinks the House Bill is unconstitutional. She supports Senate Bill 2148.

She explains, “There are quite a few problems with 1521. They’re not all unconstitutional, but they don’t necessarily express the spirit of Article 14, or they create unnecessary issues.”

Senator Mathern says these bills won’t get a vote until the very end of the session. Senator Hogue says the House Bill should be on the Senate floor next week.

Senate Bill 2148 was in a committee hearing Wednesday. Senator Mathern says no decisions were ultimately made. 

House Bill 1521 had a hearing this afternoon. Senator Hogue says he proposed a couple of amendments to the bill, to give the ethics commission the power to make decisions without lawmakers, and to give them a budget.

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