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Legislature’s hostility to ethics proves the polls

By choking the effectiveness of the new Ethics Commission, the Legislature proved that the negative polls were right.

EMC Research of Washington, D.C., conducted polls to assess the voters’ perceptions of the state Legislature and political system. The results should have jerked legislators up short but they seemed determined to make the Ethics Commission unworkable and they succeeded.

In the polls, the Legislature had only a 39 percent approval rating. More than 80 percent believed political leaders were more interested in protecting their power than doing what is right. At the same time, an equal number wanted greater oversight and accountability for state legislators.

An effective ethics commission would go a long way toward improvinng oversight and accountability in state government. The truth is that the Legislature does not want more oversight and accountability

In its arrogance, the Legislature has continued to oppose public opinion. Polls showed that a majority of North Dakotans favored marijuana for medical uses but the Legislature kept killing such proposals until the citizens took charge passed the measure themselves.

Then there was the ethics commission proposal to check on the integrity of the North Dakota political system. The idea was killed in three consecutive sessions of the Legislature. It was finally initiated and adopted by a vote of the citizens. The hostile Legislature took full advantage of its responsibility to implement the commission and has rendered it harmless.

Even though the ethics commission is a constitutional body, the Legislature introduced House Bill 1521, designed to undo what the constitution provides even though it does not have authority to override constitutional language.

Gregory B. Stites, a Bismarck attorney with unimpeachable credentials, wrote a memorandum to the Ethics Commission members a week ago in which he stated:

“In my reasoned legal opinion, many of the statutes enacted clearly hamper, restrict and impair the provisions of Article XIV in constitutionally impermissible ways.”

Then he proceeded to list 21 instances in which the Legislature violated the constitution in Sections 6 through 24 with its House Bill 1521.

Among some of the unconstitutional provisions added by the Legislature include abolishing anonymous whistleblowing; deleting lawsuits against responsible public officials; forcing the commission to promulgate rules through the legislative system; protecting lobbyists; limiting lobbyist reporting requirements; providing no criminal penalty for corruption and inserting requirements for negotiations before formal complaints

As should be expected, the paid lobbyists have been flocking to meetings of the Ethics Commission, fighting to keep their avenues of influence open. Meanwhile, unpaid citizens are not able to be present as a counterweight to the influence of lobbyists. The lobbyists are winning.

“We are all honest,” has been the defense offered by legislators who opposed creation of the ethics commission. How can we know that without an effective ethics commission?

Then there’s the case of State Auditor Joshua Gallion who thought it would be a good idea to do some performance audits and discovered that the Legislature didn’t want some “loose cannon” finding and reporting errors in state government.

So at the last minute in a House-Senate conference committee language was slipped into a bill to require the state auditor to get the permission of a legislative committee before doing performance audits.

Now the state auditor in North Dakota is chosen in a general election to serve as the auditor. It is a constitutional office but now we have the Legislature stripping the office of its functions.

Instead of representing the people and the initiative process, the Legislature seems to be representing something else. When legislatures have gotten out of hand in other states, they have adopted term limits. Right now, if such a proposal were on the 2020 ballot, term limits would pass by a healthy margin.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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