A group wants to place a measure on the November ballot to create an ethics committee. Secretary of State Al Jaeger will review a proposed petition he received last week. If the group gets approval to circulate petitions for the measure they must gather 26,904 signatures by July 9.
The Tribune doesn’t think an ethics committee is a bad idea, but this measure seems too ambitious.
The group’s measure would create 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 would have the authority to issue subpoenas, take sworn testimony and conduct hearings during any investigation, refer complaints to the appropriate authorities and issue "advisory opinions."
The measure also would 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. The measure also provides an annual $750,000 transfer from the Bank of North Dakota to fund the commission's work.
Efforts to establish an ethics commission have failed in the past in the Legislature. Democrats have introduced legislation to establish an ethics commission every session since 2011. Now, a 32-member sponsoring committee will try to get the idea before the voters. The committee includes a mix of well-known Republicans and Democrats. The committee’s chairwoman is Republican Dina Butcher, who was an unsuccessful candidate for agriculture commissioner in 1996. Former Republican Public Service Commissioner Susan Wefald is a member of the committee. Democrats on the committee include Ellen Chaffee, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2012, and Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo.
Opponents say an ethics committee isn’t needed. They argue unethical behavior is rare and that voters serve as a barrier to poor conduct by going to the polls and electing someone else. During a debate over an ethics committee during the legislative session, Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, said a legislative committee opposed the measure because it felt the evidence used to make the case for a commission was based on anecdotal evidence and didn’t warrant approval. “Some states have what has been referred to as a culture of corruption,” Louser said. “In our state, we have a culture of openness and accountability.”
The Tribune believes most state officials and politicians are honest and try to do the right thing. However, there are times when people can have lapses in good judgment or not realize their course of action could be seen as a conflict of interest. And then there are a few who misuse the system and need to be held accountable. An ethics committee could be useful in assuring accountability.
Giving the commission the authority to issue subpoenas, take sworn testimony and conduct hearings makes it sound like a court. A budget of $750,000 seems high. If the measure makes it to the ballot voters must decide if they think the state has enough problems to merit a commission with such powers. Do we want to spend that much money on it?
If it makes it on the ballot the sponsoring committee will get to make their case. In a sense it will be the ethics commission’s first hearing before the public.