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North Dakota’s new ethics regulations may make politics less transparent

Recently, a couple of dozen North Dakota lawmakers took a trip to Nashville which cost taxpayers nearly $90,000.

The occasion was a summit put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization our state legislature belongs to (annual dues were $129,770 this year).

The trip itself is not exactly news. These trips have happened in the past and come under criticism.

Voters don’t seem to care much about them.

This particular trip is interesting because it may be the last one like it.

Lobbyists were along for the ride and paid for at least one dinner for the elected officials at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

On September 1st our state’s new ethics commission was officially appointed. They will be using their first meetings to get organized –commission chairman Ronald Goodman said they’ll be focused on things like hiring staff and finding office space — but they’ll be getting around to implementing new rules banning gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.

The commission, as well as the gift ban, were created by Measure 1 on the 2018 ballot.

What happened between the lawmakers and lobbyists was still legal only because Measure 1’s prohibitions haven’t been implemented yet. “The ethics commission, they haven’t adopted any rules. So we’re governed by the statues that are in place,” John Bjornson, head of Legislative Council, told me.

Here’s a question: Once those rules are in force, do we feel like the relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists will be more transparent or less?

Right now everyone is pretty open about it. One lawmaker on the trip, Rep. Jake Blum (R-Grand Forks), posted a picture to social media of lawmakers and lobbyists posing together.

He later took it down after receiving some criticism. “I think it was unfortunate judgment on my part to post that,” he said. “A lot of these folks are my friends and I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

I spoke to several lawmakers who were on the trip, and asked each of them how we would know if the lobbyists had purchased them a drink or a steak or maybe tickets to a show.

Not one of them had a good answer.

“Off the top of my head, other than somebody catching it happening in action, I don’t know of any sort of reporting that has to happen with that specifically when it comes to drinks or food from lobbyists,” Rep. Matt Eidson (D-Grand Forks) told me when I asked him.

The idea of regulating these relationships between lobbyists and legislators is appealing in a superficial sort of way, which is probably why a majority of North Dakotans voted for Measure 1.

But the pre-Measure 1 status quo was one of fairly open interactions between lobbyists and state officials.

I don’t think Measure 1 is really going to change those interactions.

I do think those interactions will likely become less visible to the public.

Is that really what we wanted? Are we serving the cause of ethics by chasing these relationships into the darkness?

I’m not so sure.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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