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Proposed ballot measure seeks ND ethics commission, other anti-corruption policies in state constitution

Dina Butcher, left, hands North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger a proposed petition for a ballot measure to add anti-corruption policies to the state constitution Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—A backer of a proposed anti-corruption ballot measure said Wednesday, Jan. 31, there are "a lot of little opportunities" for unethical behavior in North Dakota that could be deterred with their pitch to amend the state constitution.

Measure supporters submitted a proposed petition to the Secretary of State's Office for review Wednesday. They hope to put it on the November ballot, meaning they'll need 26,904 signatures by the end of the day July 9.

The measure would establish a state ethics commission that could investigate alleged violations "related to government ethics, lobbying, gifts to public officials, conflict of interest, government contracts, recusal, campaign finance, or corruption." It could issue subpoenas, take sworn testimony and conduct hearings during its investigation, refer complaints to the appropriate authorities and issue "advisory opinions."

The measure would also prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials, prevent public officials from lobbying for two years after holding office and prevent candidates and public officials from allocating campaign contributions for personal use.

"From my experience in state government, you lose your compass sometimes as to what is ethical and what isn't," said former Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Dina Butcher, the sponsoring committee's chairwoman.

The sponsoring committee's 32 members includes Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern, Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, former Republican Public Service Commissioner Susan Wefald and Ellen Chaffee, the former president of Valley City and Mayville state universities who ran for lieutenant governor as a Democrat in 2012. Butcher ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner in 1996 as a Republican.

The proposed measure would also require the Legislature to enact laws to disclose money spent to influence elections and "state government action," but Sen. Jonathan Casper, R-Fargo, noted legislators passed a new law last year that boosts campaign finance reporting. Casper was the primary sponsor of the bill, which included a prohibition on using campaign funds for personal use.

As for the ethics commission, Casper worried that complaints would be used as a "political play" rather than to improve government. He also noted that the measure would require an annual $750,000 transfer from the Bank of North Dakota to support the commission's work.

"I think that we have an ethics commission in every coffee shop and every public gathering place across the state of North Dakota, that the more information voters have, they can exercise their right to vote every four years," Casper said. "That's the best place for those decisions to be made."

House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said Democrats have introduced legislation to form an ethics commission every session since 2011. He said it's a good idea to turn to voters if the Republican-controlled Legislature won't approve it.

"I believe that North Dakotans, while they may trust their government, they also say, 'trust but verify,'" he said. "I think the people of the state deserve the assurance that there is some oversight of their elected and appointed officials."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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