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Lloyd Omdahl, Published March 17 2013

Omdahl: Oil puts ND in big leagues

State policymakers across the country have always been plagued by undue political influence whenever an economic interest develops a huge stake in state policies.

Montana had its Anaconda Copper; West Virginia its coal; Delaware its DuPont Chemical, and North Dakota its Alexander McKenzie, who facilitated control of the state by Minneapolis-St. Paul railroads, banks and chain elevators.

This effort to influence or control state policy is understandable. When major industries are subject to multimillion-dollar decisions by elected officials, they find it profitable to spend huge sums of money to see that the right decisions are made.

Some of this money will be spent not only to finance the political campaigns of favorable candidates but it will also be used in more subtle ways, such as expense-paid junkets, job opportunities, financing pet projects, or favoring the relatives of a strategically situated official.

As the size of North Dakota’s oil industry grows, we should expect that the vulnerability of elected officials will grow with it. Abuses are likely to occur. Human nature hasn’t changed since the days of Alexander McKenzie.

Some Dunn County folks believe this has already happened and argue that they have a case in hand. They claim that there was wrongdoing when the oil industry contributed $10,000 to the political campaign of a key official two weeks before the State Industrial Commission made a decision on a Dunn oil field.

To get this issue resolved, critics of the Industrial Commission are trying to use the section of state law that authorizes the calling of a grand jury by citizen petition to investigate.

In response to this effort, the Legislature is entertaining a proposal to make it more difficult for citizens to use the grand jury approach. The measure passed in House of Representatives by a two-to-one vote and is now in the Senate.

Under current law, petitions must be signed by 10 percent of the number voting in the last election. The proposed legislation calls for 25 percent of the county population.

By changing the percentage and the base, this measure would mean an increase in signatures of 400 percent, making the citizen petition process so difficult it would become unusable.

We need to wonder about the motives for keeping citizens from calling a grand jury. The petition process rarely has been used and has never been abused in the past but may be an important tool in the future.

Other safeguards may become necessary to protect the integrity of the policy processes in North Dakota. At some point, we may need to have an ethics monitoring system completely insulated from the reach of elected officials.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that there can be no limits on campaign contributions and that front organizations can make contributions without disclosing sources. If they wished, well-heeled interests could easily buy enough influence to subvert public policy.

The state would be well-advised to require full and quick public disclosure of campaign contributions. Secretary of State Al Jaeger has fine-tuned the technology to the point where we could have full disclosure on a daily basis.

The oil industry has pushed North Dakota into the big league. Oil has big-league financial interests; it has big-league money, and will play big-league hardball.

While being wary, North Dakotans do appreciate the wealth and the jobs that the oil industry has brought to the state. But that is no reason to leave the store unlocked.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com