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Dina Butcher, left, and Ellen Chaffee were involved with changing the North Dakota constitution when voters approved Measure 1 in November.

A draft bill is circulating to enact voters’ call for a state government ethics commission this coming legislative session.

“I’m trying to get some consensus with Republicans and Democrats to work on it together this session,” said Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who authored the draft legislation. “The important thing now is to make it public so others can take a look.”

Measure 1 passed with almost 54 percent of the vote in November, adding new ethics rules to the state constitution. Now lawmakers have three years to enact portions of the law.

Mathern said this first bill is focused on the immediate actions called for in the ballot measure, namely the creation of the commission and appointment of the commissioners.

To accomplish the task, the draft bill calls for reuse of a process already in place — used in the governor’s office for gathering candidates to fill seats on various state boards — to assemble names of candidates for the ethics commission. Under the constitutional measure, vetting of those candidates will be done by the governor and Senate majority and minority leaders.

The bill also identifies what staffing and space will be needed for the commission to operate.

“The goal being an appropriation,” Mathern said of the resources the commission would have to get to work establishing rules.

Mathern is proposing a staff leader position, a specialist and an administrative assistant. While no exact dollar amount is set in the legislation, there are parameters for salaries, such as if the specialist were an attorney with five years experience, that employee would receive a salary equivalent to someone with the same years of experience in the attorney general’s office.

Finally, Mathern said the legislation would direct the newly formed commission to use the same rules of other state agencies, which includes reviews of rules made by the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee.

There might be some who oppose giving legislators rule review power in this instance, Mathern said.

But Ellen Chaffee, co-chair of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, which initiated the ballot measure, doesn’t foresee this as an issue, calling the agencies’ rule-making practices “really very solid.”

“We as the state of North Dakota know how to do things. Even though this is a new amendment, it’s not a new process,” she said, adding that the state already has “tried and true approaches” it can use in the implementation.

Mathern said he’s received a lot of different feedback and points of view on his bill draft and “not really any consensus yet.” Comments have ranged from “there’s no need for it” to “it’s not strict enough.”

“I have the confidence they’ll work it out,” Chaffee said of the Legislature.

Mathern said he has met with party leaders and caucuses. Ideally, he would like four other people — members of both parties from both houses — to join him as co-sponsors.

“My hope is this will be bipartisan,” he said.

Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, who disagreed with the language in Measure 1, had considered introducing ethics commission legislation if the measure hadn't passed. Because it did pass, he chose not to draft anything of his own.

Kasper is unsure what steps the Legislature might ultimately take this year but said he thinks many of the groups opposed to the measure will be watching any actions closely and weigh how to respond.

The North Dakota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had opposed the measure over fears of First Amendment violations. Spokeswoman Janna Farley said they will first monitor what actions legislators take and have considered filing a lawsuit if any infringement takes place.

Farley did not have any details on what actions this session might take to constitute First Amendment violations.  

Chaffee said her organization will be on hand this legislative session to provide information on the rationale behind the different parts of the measure. There also is a plan to bring in expert witnesses from other states with experience creating an ethics commission, she said.

North Dakotans for Public Integrity is hopeful, as the measure becomes law, those opposed to the measure will be ready to move on and make it work in a way that allays concerns, Chaffee said. The organization has already reached out to some of those opponents inviting their collaboration.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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