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Port: We didn't elect these people to indulge themselves

"Many of our lawmakers see the elected offices they hold not as an opportunity to serve the public, but as a membership card to an exclusive club with cushy perks and a lot of business opportunities."

Rep. Lori VanWinkle
The floor of the North Dakota House of Representatives during the 2023 session.
Video screenshot

MINOT, N.D. β€” Indulgence, I think, is the word for these times in North Dakota politics.

In Bismarck, this winter and spring, we watched many of our state lawmakers indulge their authoritarian impulses and personal biases. We had dozens of bills β€” some of which became law β€” targeting trans kids, librarians, and educators.

This legislation accomplishes very little for the average North Dakota voter who wants efficient, competent government services and reliable infrastructure paid for by reasonable taxation. Yet our lawmakers spent an inordinate amount of time on these bills, leaving important issues such as child care and tax reform to be rushed through in the closing hours of the session.

Our lawmakers haven't been shy about indulging their pecuniary interests, either. Back in 2019, Forum News Service reporter John Hageman discovered that some state lawmakers were also landlords for state government through a process that didn't include competitive bidding. Also, it may not surprise you to learn that these property deals weren't included in the financial disclosures made by lawmakers.

Nearly four years after that report, lawmakers finally passed a bill shedding some light on those arrangements β€” I'm talking about House Bill 1288 β€” but only after that unseemly state of affairs turned into something truly scandalous. Last year it came to light that state Rep. Jason Dockter got a sweetheart deal leasing office space to the Office of the Attorney General.

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The deal came under former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. When Stenehjem ran for governor in 2016, Dockter was his campaign chairman.

The deal went $1.8 million over budget, including a large overpayment to Dockter and his business partners that wasn't paid back until after incoming Attorney General Drew Wrigley flagged this indecorous situation for state auditors.

And now, most recently, thanks to Forum News Service reporter Jeremy Turley's typically impeccable work, we learn that some lawmakers have been indulging themselves with unnecessary trips to sumptuous locales on the taxpayer's dime.

"Since 2014, the North Dakota Legislature has spent more than $45,000 to send a dozen retiring and defeated lawmakers to out-of-state conferences," Turley reports.

There's nothing wrong with lawmakers taking trips to learn more about certain policy areas, or to network with policymakers from other states, and even other countries. I'd argue that sort of thing is going to be more important than ever as term limits take hold in North Dakota, limiting the amount of on-the-job experience any given lawmaker can accumulate.

And, yes, sometimes these conferences are held in ritzy locations, but that doesn't mean they're inappropriate. Tourism destinations can also mean good deals on flights, lodging, and conference space.

But spending tens of thousands to send lawmakers who are retiring or have been rejected by the voters on these trips?

That's egregious.

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Positively indulgent.

It's enough to give one the impression that many of our lawmakers see the elected offices they hold not as an opportunity to serve the public, but as a membership card to an exclusive club with cushy perks and a lot of business opportunities.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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