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​Ethics commission: “symbols of evil”

News | January 4th, 2019

Ellen Chaffee and Dina Butcher days before Measure 1 passed in North Dakota - photograph by C.S. Hagen

BISMARCK – After repeated attempts at better government transparency over the years, the constitutional initiated Measure 1, now known as Article XIV, which created an Ethics Commission, is now inseparable from law and will be incorporated into the state’s Constitution on January 5.

Opponents may not like the fact that out-of-state lobbyists will be held accountable for buying political favors, but the details will take two legislative sessions to comb through, Senator Tim Mathern, introducer of the bill, said.

“This goes into effect tomorrow, January 5,” Mathern said. “The Ethics Commission is part of the Constitution now. This bill is really only to put the meat on the bones. A constitutional measure provides the structure which will last over time and the bill is really only to add in the details to make it all work right.”

The fight for ethics was led by two #badassgrandmas, Republican Dina Butcher and Democrat Ellen Chaffee. Since the measure passed they’ve been keeping careful watch over their bill’s evolution, Chaffee said. Opposition is reportedly mounting and will be attempting to deny funding, delay implementation, and pick apart the details until the commission becomes toothless.

“Dina and I have been told that we’ve become the symbols of evil, and that there is literally hatred in their faces and their voices when they talk about us,” Chaffee said.

“We’re starting to see how things are going to be shaping up in terms of the opposition. Our goal is to help people care enough to do something. Measure 1 isn’t done; it remains in jeopardy. All over the country legislatures have been disrespecting the will of the people and our own legislators need to know that we look forward to a common sense implementation of the transparency, integrity, and accountability they voted for.”

Majority Leader Senator Rich Wardner has said from the beginning that he opposed the creation of an ethics commission, which was a “solution looking for a problem.” He still opposes the idea, but acquiesces that the people have spoken.

“Are there some people that want to get it back on the ballot and show the people that there are things in here that you didn’t know there were in the bill, or in the petition? Yeah, there are,” Wardner said. “But I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to them. I just heard people grumbling.”

Wardner is chairman of the Energy Development and Transmission Committee, the Government Finance Committee, and the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, and said the state did not need a commission costing the state millions to oversee ethics.

“I think we got everything pretty well covered in this state, we have ethics in the legislature, I never thought there was an issue,” Wardner said. “We need a million dollars to fund that and all I am hearing is we’re spending too much money… But it’s fine. It’s done. It’s over. Don’t paint a picture like we’re trying to hold it up.”

The biggest issue he and others in the legislature will focus on is defining the terms of Article XIV, he said.

“They have some things that they want the legislature will deal with,” Wardner said. “The biggest deal we will have going forward is definitions, and we’re going to work hard to make sure the definitions are correct and what they should be.”

Another issue is that lobbyists are backing away from the state, Wardner said.

“This state is so transparent, if we get an ethics commission we will be less transparent we will be walking on eggshells,” Wardner said. “A lot of the measure goes into effect tomorrow. In the in between time, we usually have these receptions, where lobbyists put on receptions. Going forward, that’s over. Some of the lobbyist people have said “to hell with it.’ And you say ‘so what, so those legislators don’t get free meals,’ but that’s where we network.

“It’s a time of networking. That will be gone. I don’t think we will have that anymore, but that’s fine. The people have spoken.”

Mathern tried to find a Republican to help sponsor the bill, but he was frozen out, he said. Not one Republican co-signed the bill that will become Article XIV.

“It was a very, very difficult process to find co-sponsors in terms of trying to get it bipartisan and I talked with many Republicans,” Mathern said. “I actually have shared many versions of this bill with Republican leadership over the last couple of months. But when it came to signing this bill, they wouldn’t sign on.

“I just decided that we would just have Democrats sign and it would look like a Democrat bill. Basically the content is what the sponsoring committee wanted. I took their leadership – of course I had questions – but I wanted it to be as close as possible to the citizen group.”

The bill is designed in a three-step process: First, establish the ethics commission, then an interim committee of the legislature will be studying all the pieces that legislators find difficult. Lastly, full implementation will not occur until the 2021 legislative session.

Senator David Hogue, the primary sponsor of Senate Resolution 4001 seeking to change the way constitutional amendments are submitted and put the power back into the hands of the elected few, instead of the people, was also contacted for comment, but he did not reply.

Mathern has also heard and sensed the displeasure felt by many Republicans to the creation of an ethics commission.

“I have found that there are many legislators who are upset with that leadership group, and they have been telling some of the things that they feel were said or done or think were incorrect, but frankly, this was a campaign,” Mathern said. “There were bound to points of views expressed. I found those women very easy to work with. It was great to see citizens step up to leadership and as far as things that were said about legislators, I never took it personally.”

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