North Dakota Has A Problem With Private Advocacy On The Public Dime

Back in February I wrote a story about professional boards that were going beyond merely regulating their industries to advocating on behalf of them. I focused on the State Bar Association of North Dakota, which used licensing dues in 2014 to campaign against a ballot measure aimed at reforming child custody laws, and the Board of Podiatric Medicine which was using licensing dues to pay a lobbyist.

In fact, I found that a number of state boards were employing lobbyists. “Other state boards with lobbyists registered for the 2015 legislative session are the Board of Engineers and Land Surveyors, the Board of Nursing, the Board of Physical Therapy, the State Board of Architecture, the State Board of Dental Examiners and the State Board of Medical Examiners,” I wrote.

But yesterday Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued a legal opinion finding that this practice is illegal. “It is my opinion that a state agency or political subdivision may not use public funds to hire a lobbyist unless such authority is specifically provided for by statute or if the state agency or political subdivision has authority to promote or advocate in specific subject areas,” Stenehjem wrote in a letter opinion (see below) in response to a request from Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Republican from Dickinson.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Why should those seeking reform have to fight against advocacy from official state boards, sometimes funded by public dollars?[/mks_pullquote]

The specific instance Stenehjem was writing about was the Board of Dental Examiners which employed a lobbyist to fight SB2354 which would have sought to address the state’s shortage in dental services by creating in the law an “advanced dental hygienist” position who could do some of the routine work dentists do (my opinions on the legislation here).

Obviously the dentists don’t want non-dentists horning in on their business. We can have a debate about whether or not they’re right. The question is, should advocacy on behalf of dentists be done through the official state board which licenses and disciplines dentists?

Of course not. Even if the dentists ponied up private dollars to hire the lobbyist, which is what they claim, it is entirely inappropriate. For instance, what if some dentists dissent? What if they like the legislation the board is lobbying against? Would they be intimidated from speaking out, afraid of going up against the board which handles the licensing and discipline for their behavior?

Why should those seeking reform have to fight against advocacy from official state boards, sometimes funded by public dollars?

These groups – whether we’re talking about lawyers or dentists or podiatrists, etc. – have every right to advocate on behalf of their industries. But they shouldn’t be able to use legally required licensing payments to fund that advocacy, and they shouldn’t be able to conduct the advocacy through official channels like licensing boards. They should form private organizations, funded with private dollars.

I wrote about the lawyers, specifically, at the end of my newspaper column this week (see it online in the Minot Daily, the Bowman Pioneer, or the High Plains Reader). “If the lawyers want to fight family law reform to protect their profits, fine, but they shouldn’t get to co-opt official regulatory authority to win those battles.”

That goes for all professions. Regulation should be public. Advocacy, though, should be private.

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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