North Dakota Democrats Have Some Good Ideas on Transparency and Accountability Laws

Democratic House Minority Leader Corey Mock

The North Dakota Democratic party, already marginalized by voters in state politics, suffered even more devastating losses this last election day. In addition to losing every single statewide election by a landslide – not a single one of their candidates got even 30 percent of the vote – they lost seven seats in the state Senate and eleven seats in the state House.

It was an electoral blood bath for Democrats. Which is why it’s somewhat ironic that they would, just weeks later, start lecturing us all about “trust in government.” They’ve even proposed a raft of legislation aimed at promoting this “trust.”

“Our goal with this package of good governance bills is really to show the public that their elected officials are open and transparent and want to create an atmosphere of trust,” Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, a Democrat from Fargo who actually managed to win her election in November, told reporter Amy Dalrymple.

With statewide voting patterns as our guide, it’s pretty clear that North Dakotans don’t have a lot of trust in Democratic leadership these days. They should rethink their tone.

Still, most of these proposals are solid policy. Per the article, Democrats are pushing six bills, and most of them are sound policy of the sort Republicans should adopt.

Here are the good ones:

  • HB1234 would prohibit foreign contributions to state campaigns (Governor Jack Dalrymple and state Senator Lonnie Laffen accepted small contributions from Canada in the 2014 cycle).
  • HB1344 would prohibit the personal use of campaign contributions (there isn’t currently any prohibition on this, nor any reporting of campaign expenditures either).
  • HB1410 would increase disclosures by lobbyists. Currently they have to report if they spend more than $60 on one person on one day. This legislation would put those disclosures online.
  • HB1232 would require that legislative candidates report their campaign finance information in the same way statewide candidates do.
  • HB1418 would require that financial interest statements state officials file be put online in a central location

These reforms would make our state government more transparent and more accountable.

If anything, some of these bills don’t go far enough. For instance, while it would be great if lawmakers reported the same amount of detail about their campaign finances as statewide officials do, really all candidates for elected office in our state should be reporting every penny contributed and every penny spent on a weekly basis during the campaign season.

There’s really no good reason not to.

I suspect Republicans will be tempted to kill some of these bills because they’re backed by Democrats. They’ll be tempted all the more so with Democrats sanctimoniously championing themselves as crusaders for trust in government. It makes it seem as though this is about scoring political points for Democrats rather than sound reforms. That sort of partisanship will only alienate Republicans.

But Republicans should rise above the pettiness. These are all good bills.

The only bad policy proposed by Democrats in this vein is HB1431 which would create a state ethics commission. “Overwhelmingly, the public believes there should be some level of oversight of their elected officials,” House Minority Leader Corey Mock said of the legislation. “And we completely agree.”

I don’t think North Dakota Democrats are any sort of an authority on what North Dakotans do and do not want. Certainly I think most voters would say they wanted accountability for elected officials, but the question is what form that accountability should take.

Mock’s legislation – which has become something of a hobby horse for him – would add to existing statute a requirement that an interim ethics committee be staffed by both Republicans and Democrats.

What Mock is after, I’m afraid, is a mechanism for political witch hunts. It’s hard to argue that states with ethics commissions are any more or less ethical than the states without them. Probably because it’s politics, and not ethics, which are served by commissions of politicians tasked with holding one another accountable.

The best way to ensure ethical government is to back broad, robust transparency laws. As long is the public is well informed about what their leaders are up to, any questions of ethics can be settled at the ballot box.

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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