If We’re Really Concerned About Ethics in North Dakota We Should Have Given Lawmakers Their Free Lunch*

The Pioneer Family” statue seen in front of the North Dakota State Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck. Forum file photo

There is a lot of Sturm und Drang about ethics in North Dakota right now.

Most of it – especially the clouds of smug coming from the Measure 1 supporters – isn’t so much about ethics as a group of partisan cranks out to shift the state’s political winds by regulating political activity.

Because what do you think this is, a free country or something?

But if there is cause to be worried about spending on things like perks for lobbyists – meals and drinks and gifts – couldn’t we combat that by compensating lawmakers more adequately for their service?

There are plenty of egotistical schmucks in politics who treat the Legislature like a social club, but there are also a lot of good people who are genuinely interested in producing good public policy for their constituents. This myopia about compensation for lawmakers favors more of the former group running for office than the latter.

I understand that the default position on this sort of thing from the sort of people who don’t actually spend a lot of time following the Legislature is that our elected lawmakers are already overpaid. These are the same people who have scorned a proposal which would have allowed lawmakers to claim meal expenses when attending to their elected duties.

That bill – HB1505, introduced by Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman) – failed in the House yesterday in a lopsided 85 – 6 vote with the “no” vote lawmakers undoubtedly fearing a public backlash had it passed.

To the extent that there’s really a cause for concern about ethics in North Dakota – and, again, I think most of that is so much partisan hot air – measures like Kempenich’s would likely do more to address it than Measure 1 ever will (assuming it’s not struck down as clearly unconstitutional).

Currently lawmakers make $495 per month, plus $177 per day during their legislative session and any interim committee hearings. That works out to around $14,000 per year, plus state health benefits (which, admittedly, are cushy) and reimbursement for lodging.

That’s not a lot when you consider that the lawmakers must give up 4 – 5 months of working their regular careers to work full time at the every-other-month sessions. And even during the interim between sessions there are things like interim committee meetings lawmakers must travel to every month. Plus carving out time to be available to constituents, local political leaders in their districts, etc., etc.

It’s fashionable to be cynical about politicians, but serving in the Legislature is not a lucrative gig. So much so that the only people who can afford to serve are wealthy people, or government workers who can get a leave of absence from their day jobs.

And yet a proposal for meal reimbursements is met with political backlash?

It’s a sentiment born of popular ignorance about the realities of legislative service.

There are plenty of egotistical schmucks in politics who treat the Legislature like a social club, but there are also a lot of good people who are genuinely interested in producing good public policy for their constituents. This myopia about compensation for lawmakers favors more of the former group running for office than the latter.

* As Heinlein wrote, there ain’t so such thing as a free lunch. Kempenich’s bill had a fiscal note just over $400,000 per two-year budget cycle.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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