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Port: Bill requiring disclosure of lawmaker-owned property is, with some tweaks, a good idea

Our goal should be transparency, not restriction. Disclose where the financial interests of lawmakers and state officials intersect with their official duties and let the voters decide what's right and wrong.

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North Dakota state Capitol
Korrie Wenzel / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakotans want their state lawmakers to be part-timers.

I don't have, like, polling data on this or anything, but I know it to be true, because every time I argue that perhaps our lawmakers aren't paid enough, or that perhaps our public interest in a state government consisting of separate and co-equal branches necessitates full-time lawmakers, it's made very clear to me, by you my audience, that I'm full of it.

If we're to have part-time lawmakers paid a wage they can't make a living on, then we must accept that they will have "day jobs" and that those pursuits of personal income may at times intersect with their official duties.

Nor should this be a problem, as long as we have transparency when it comes to those intersections.

A bill draft under consideration by the Government Administration Committee seeks to bring some of that transparency to the state government's leasing of real estate owned by lawmakers. A 2019 report by reporter John Hageman revealed that this actually happens quite a bit. The bill draft would seek to not only shine a light on the property owned by lawmakers, but also prohibit the state from leasing that property.

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The bill, if made law, would:

  • Require that every candidate for elected or appointed office in North Dakota disclose any real property they or their spouses own or have an interest in.
  • Prohibit any member of the Legislature from voting on funding for a state agency that leases the property from them.
  • Prohibit any state entity from leasing property in which a lawmaker, or an appointed official with authority over the entity, has an interest.
  • Require that all leases entered into by state entities "include a list of all owners of the leased property, including each individual with an ownership interest in a business that owns the leased property."

This bill has its heart in the right place, but it's too restrictive and too complicated.

Because, again, we North Dakotans have decided that serving in the Legislature should be only a part-time gig. Given that, we have to accept that our lawmakers are going to make a living outside their government service.

What we need is transparency, not restrictions.

My first criticism of the bill draft is that I don't believe it's wise, or even constitutional, to dictate to legislators under what conditions they're allowed to legislate. Are teachers who serve in the Legislature prohibited from voting on funding for the school districts that pay them a salary? Should real estate agents not be allowed to vote on property tax policies? Can farmers weigh in on agriculture policy that impacts their bottom line?

Our goal should be to shine a light on where a given lawmaker's personal financial interests may cross paths with their official duties. Make that information public, and let the voters decide if a given elected official is making reasonable votes or just feathering their own nests.

This is why the disclosure part of this bill draft is a good idea. Make it known where a given lawmaker's financial interests lay, and we, the public, will take it from there. My only tweak to this section of the bill would be to exclude from disclosure any property that doesn't produce revenue. If a given lawmaker isn't leasing out a building or renting out a home, do we really need to know about it?

Food for thought.

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But once this disclosure is established, I don't have any problems with a state entity leasing property a lawmaker or appointed official has an interest in. As long as these transactions are done in the light of day, with the relevant information disclosed to the public, where's the problem?

MORE FROM ROB PORT
Gates and his trust will own the land, and the family who sold it to him will farm it, and that's all legal under the law.

Again, we can decide for ourselves whether anything untoward is going on.

The one part of the bill I'm on the fence about is the disclosure requirement for all owners of a leased property "including each individual with an ownership interest in a business that owns the leased property."

That seems OK, at first blush, but I have some trepidation that if we make doing business with the state government too onerous we may decrease the number of people and businesses willing to do it. Something that will, ultimately, make government purchasing and leasing less competitive.

Again, this bill isn't a bad idea, but it needs some work to turn it from something that's needlessly draconian into a reasonable piece of public policy in pursuit of the sort of transparency we all want from state government.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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