BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate approved a bill implementing the state's new ethics rules Wednesday, April 17, that a Democratic lawmaker said includes "gaping holes" and could attract a court challenge.
The Senate's 39-8 vote largely fell along party lines, with Republicans backing the legislation introduced by their majority leaders. It's one of two bills addressing last year's passage of Measure 1 that are still alive in the waning days of the legislative session.
Fargo Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern, a member of the special committee that hashed out the bill, said the legislation includes what he described as financial transparency loopholes, constrains the definition of "lobbyist" and limits what it means to influence state government action. The group that backed Measure 1, North Dakotans for Public Integrity, raised similar concerns in an email issued Tuesday evening.
"You can drive a truck through this," Mathern said.
Though Mathern said somebody could challenge the bill in court on the grounds that it doesn't meet constitutional requirements, he said he hasn't been told directly that that's on the horizon. North Dakotans for Public Integrity President Dina Butcher said she has constitutional concerns about the bill but she's "just waiting to see what the final act is."
Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, the ethics panel's chairman, called the bill a "very reasonable compromise."
"We're going to regulate a lot more people than we previously have," he said. "But we're not trying to regulate every conversation, every exchange, every email."
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said a yet-to-be appointed ethics commission "will be the final say on this." He said the bill is "setting forth some ideas they should consider from the Legislature," but Mathern countered that what legislators pass will carry the weight of state law.
The vote came on Day 69 of the session, which is capped at 80 days.
A House committee was waiting to take action on a Senate bill sponsored by Mathern. Fargo Republican Rep. Jim Kasper, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said Wednesday afternoon he was still digesting the legislation passed across the hall.
Voters etched the ethics rules into the state constitution in November. The language bans lobbyist gifts to public officials, includes new financial transparency requirements and establishes an ethics commission that could investigate malfeasance.
Proponents of the measure argued it would help ensure transparency and accountability in state government, while opponents warned it was poorly written and could restrict political advocacy.
Senate leaders are working off of a May 24 application deadline for the five-member ethics commission.