Updates: House and Senate Ethics Committee Hearings!
On Tuesday, March 12th both the House and Senate Ethics Committees convened for the first time since crossover to hear the bills created by their opposite counterpart. While no amendments were heard in either committee, fantastic testimony was delivered in support of SB 2148 by Tim Mathern (D,11), David Hogue (R, 38), and NDPI attorney Greg Stites.
Questions from the House Ethics Committee about SB 2148 ranged from concerns about anonymity of complainants to simple dialogue about how best to adjust for inflation. Senator Mathern, Senator Hogue and Mr. Stites were able to clear up most concerns that the committee had about the bill, as well as explain the merits of the different approach taken by the Senate Ethics Committee. Kim Koppelman (R, District 13) took a particularly aggressive line of questioning with Mr. Stites, citing concerns that the Ethics Commission would have unchecked authority under the Senate bill. Mr. Stites assured the committee that while the Ethics Commission was granted the appropriate power necessary to perform its duties unhindered, many checks and balances had been written in, and as with all constitutional bodies, the judicial branch has the final say in all conflicts.
The Senate Ethics Committee met directly after the House Committee, and Senator Rich Wardner (R, District 37) introduced the bill. After the opening remarks, Representative Jim Kasper (R, District 46), Chair of the House Ethics Committee read through the bill with the committee and highlighted the differences between HB 1521 (the bill under review) and SB 2148. Committee members expressed concerns that a $500 fine wouldn’t be enough to deter politicians and lobbyists from exchanging gifts, particularly if the gifts were worth substantially more than the fine, mirroring one of our biggest concerns with the bill as an organization. They also questioned the conflict between the constitutionally mandated definition of gifts and the bill’s exceptions, which allow for the giving of travel and services as long as they are under the guise of education. This concern was also raised later by NDPI attorney Greg Stites and flagged for the committee, among others, as an area of constitutional non-compliance. A private citizen also testified and raised the same concern, saying that this exception would open the floodgates and allow lobbyists to circumvent the entire law.
In all, many important ideas were exchanged between Committees, and we as an organization were able to bring our concerns to the respective Committees through Mr. Stites’s articulate testimony. We want to thank everyone who was able to make it to the hearings. Your continuing support speaks volumes about North Dakota’s commitment to putting an end to corruption once and for all. While there are currently no hearings on the schedule, we will continue to keep you in the loop as we move forward.
The primary remaining issues are transparency, gifts, and Ethics Commission operations and funding. Transparency is complex, which is why Article XIV allows three years before it takes effect. We think that a legislative interim study committee could be helpful in this. Gifts and the Ethics Commission are also still issues of non-compliance with Article XIV that must be fixed.
We would ask for our supporters to send messages of appreciation to their state Senator, as their endorsement of SB 2148 before crossover was unanimous. Additionally, encouraging members of the House to support only bills that comply with the Constitution is a top priority.
Thank you for your continued support!