Tribune editorial: Legislators need to adopt will of voters

Tribune editorial: Legislators need to adopt will of voters

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Bismarck attorney Greg Stites, right, speaks about how campaign "dark money" relates to the new North Dakota constitutional amendment on ethics. Listening are Rob Cook, left, a former state representative from Montana, and Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. All three spoke to a meeting of the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in the state Capitol in Bismarck.

Voter approval of Measure 1 in November 2018 was the most important step in mandating state government ethics. With its passage and initial action by the Legislature, it’s now Article XIV of the North Dakota Constitution.

The key aspect of the measure to many North Dakotans was the creation of an Ethics Commission to review complaints related to ethical issues outlined in the measure. The state was given three years to fully implement Article XIV.

The Tribune editorial board believes many North Dakotans may not realize the importance of this three-year process. It will determine whether the spirit of the constitutional measure is followed.

While the Tribune didn’t support passage of Measure 1, we believe legislators should adhere to the measure as they implement it.

The Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee has launched a two-year study of provisions in the constitutional amendment. Members of the Ethics Commission have been selected and the first meetings held. The Ethics Commission members still need to adopt rules on how they will operate.

Those rules will outline the types of complaints they will handle. Until the rules are adopted, they aren’t in position to handle complaints. They have received at least two complaints they declined to consider.

Sponsors of Measure 1, North Dakotans for Public Integrity, allowed for three years with final implementation during the 2021 legislative session. The sponsors are working to guarantee that legislators comply with provisions of the measure.

Last week the interim Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the impact of “dark money” in elections. Article XIV requires disclosure of the “ultimate and true source” of money spent to influence elections.

Rob Cook, a former Republican state representative in Montana, told the Tribune editorial board how he thinks dark money changed the Montana Legislature over a number of years resulting in a heavily Republican body.

He noted how a few people could create groups with “lovely sounding names” to pay for advertising and mailers to support candidates or measures. While the groups’ names might sound impressive, there were few people involved. Dark money opponents who testified before the committee last week encouraged the committee to follow Article XIV’s requirements on campaign finance disclosure.

During the interim, the Judiciary Committee will be examining many other aspects of Article XIV. We disagree with those who argue that the state doesn’t have any problems with elections.

Supporters of ballot measures have been criticized for going out of state for funding. The source of funding was an issue in the Senate race between Kevin Cramer and Heidi Heitkamp last year.

The District 47 Republican primary in Bismarck in 2018 took an ugly turn with Rep. George Keiser and challenger Duane Sand filing police reports against each other. The cases were dropped, and Sand lost the primary to Keiser and Rep. Larry Klemin.

Article XIV could have provided an avenue for the candidates to resolve their dispute.

Voters demonstrated their desire for Measure 1 and for transparency and accountability of state officials. Measure 1, or now Article XIV, provides resident taxpayers with the standing to sue the Legislature, Ethics Commission or any other entity if the rights in Article XIV aren’t implemented.

That gives the public some clout that the Tribune hopes isn’t necessary to use. We believe the Legislature needs to work with stakeholders to implement Article XIV in a satisfactory manner. Doing so will benefit everyone.

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