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Lloyd Omdahl, Published October 20 2013

Omdahl: Legislative vet offers warning

After 25 years of neutrality as director of the North Dakota Legislative Council, John Olsrud has broken his silence about the dangers of lobbying in a recent article carried by the Northern Plains Ethics Journal centered at North Dakota State University.

As council director, one of John’s duties was providing ethics training for new legislators.

While many in government circles deny that North Dakota has ethics problems, John is not so sure. We may not have anyone in jail, he says, but maybe that is “because legislators write their own ethics laws and rules and care is taken to make sure that nothing is done to disturb the cozy relationship between legislators and lobbyists.”

John suggests that we not worry about the lobbyist-funded party that involves large numbers of legislators and lobbyists. The thing to watch is the private parties and the trips financed by corporations that are kept out of the public view.

Lobbyists’ spending limits are little protection. Lobbyists can dodge spending limitations by funneling money through front organizations that use the money to finance legislative junkets and other favors.

“We never find out if our legislators’ trips are paid for by specific lobbying groups that have a particular interest in issues in North Dakota.”

The aim of interest groups is to capitalize on their monetary investments by securing passage of favorable laws or killing unfavorable laws. In this battle, it is helpful to have the ear of a friendly legislator.

Olsrud reported that a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company once told him that it was worth thousands of dollars just to keep certain bills from being introduced. Lobbying pays.

While Olsrud’s remarks were aimed at direct lobbying, there is also the buying of influence through campaign contributions. With the liberalization by the U.S. Supreme Court of the First Amendment to permit unlimited contributions, undetected campaign money flows freely in the political system.

Recently, some North Dakota citizens accused special interests of buying undue influence by donating to the campaigns of public service commissioners and members of the State Industrial Commission. They actually used the word “bribery.”

All of the recipients were Republicans. But before we rush to judgment, we should acknowledge that the oil and coal industries have always been regular contributors to Republican campaigns. So it can’t be assumed that such contributions are anything unusual unless they get excessive.

In order to assess the efforts of these energy industries to gain undue influence in the future, it will be necessary to compare current with past contributions to make that judgment.

While the ethics of legislative and executive officials have not been tested in years past, the political environment in North Dakota has changed radically with the arrival of big oil and all of its auxiliary economic beneficiaries. They have a big stake in what the Legislature does and doesn’t do.

But John is right. We can’t expect the Legislature to write new rules for regulating lobbying or campaign contributions. Folks who are concerned about the matter will have to bypass the Legislature and put the issue on the election ballot to get the regulations they feel is necessary.

This would require a concerted effort by a sizable number of citizens. Without the motivation of a scandalous breach of ethics, citizens are not likely to be concerned enough to take that kind of action.

“What is unfortunate about this picture,” Olsrud concluded, “is that the public will never know who is buying influence under current laws.”


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