The “Badass Grandmas” toured south-central North Dakota on Oct. 23, with stops in Napoleon, Wishek, Ashley, Hague, Strasburg and Linton.
Dina Butcher, a former Republican candidate for North Dakota ag commissioner, and Ellen Chaffee, a Democrat and former president of Valley City State College and Mayville State College, are the grandmas who represent North Dakotans for Public Integrity, a coalition of North Dakotans pushing Measure No. 1, a constitutional amendment, on the Nov. 6 ballot to create an ethics commission. They got their Badass moniker from one of Butcher’s grandchildren.
During a visit with a table full of morning coffee regulars at the Wild Rose Cafe in Ashley, Butcher said the oil boom in western North Dakota has unleashed millions of hidden lobbyist dollars that help anonymous out of state interests heavily influence state government. Opponents of Measure Measure 1, which include numerous energy-related coalitions, have raised $355,000 — a third of it in recent days.
“I want the (individual) names (of those opponents),” a skeptical Orion Rudolph demanded. “We do, too,” said Butcher, explaining that the current lack of transparency in political and lobbying finance precludes the public from knowing who is influencing state government.
“They refuse to identify the individuals,” Chaffee added.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which is largely comprised of out-of-state interests, has to date contributed $60,000 to defeat the effort. Ethics bill supporters believe the influx of money to North Dakotans For Good Government means they have the good old boy network on the run.
“They’re afraid,” Chaffee said. “They’re afraid to let go (of their power).” She says Measure No. 1 backers have an interest in a more transparent democracy while opponents prefer anonymous influence over state government.
Butcher and Chaffee’s group, North Dakotans for Public Integrity, has also received the bulk of its $747,621 from out of state, but they say that the names of the individual supporters are open to the public. The North Dakota Secretary of State’s lists those contributors but is a maze. Poor implementation of technology has been a key talking point for Democratic Secretary of State Candidate Josh Boschee, who is challenging longtime incumbent Al Jaeger, a Republican running as an independent after a window-peeping scandal forced GOP nominee Will Gardner out of the race.
Among the supporters of the ethics bill are numerous actors including Kirsten Dunst ($200), Christina Applegate ($200) as well as filmmaker Judd Apatow ($9,000). Notable Democrats from North Dakota politics supporting Measure No. 1 include former North Dakota Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, former N.D. Public Service Commission Commissioner Bruce Hagen ($280), former senators Byron Dorgan ($250), Kent Conrad ($500), former Rep. Earl Pomeroy ($250) and former Ag Commissioner Sarah Vogel ($1950).
Former Public Service Commissioner Susan Wefald, a Republican, contributed $500. She and Vogel were on the ground floor of the formation of the North Dakotans for Public Integrity which met for more than a year to devise a strategy to address transparency concerns.
Chaffee ($13,681) and Butcher ($1,124) said that their out-of-state supporters have nothing to gain other than a more transparent democracy. They suggest the opposition has a lot to hide. Proponents of the measure point to the Legislature’s 23 percent cut of the oil extraction tax as evidence of Big Oil’s undo influence over state finances. It’s a touchy subject for property owners whose taxes have spiked. In oil country, landowners complain that unscrupulous oil company accounting is shorting the state and individuals due royalties.
Former state legislator Tyler Axness said on his NDxPlains blog, “Candidate Doug Burgum said he would support a performance audit of the oil and gas division as he challenged Wayne Stenehjem. Gov. Doug Burgum has not pursued it. In 2017, an internal situation at the oil and gas division became public after 38,700 emails were deleted.”
Burgum campaigned against the good old boy network, however, he was forced to pay back $40,000 for a 2018 Super Bowl trip to Minneapolis, sponsored by Xcel Energy. Burgum has recently announced an ethics policy for his office, which had not had one previously.
Geoff Simon, executive director of the Western Energy Association, chairs North Dakotans For Good Government. He has voiced concerns that the $200 reporting guidelines are too stringent and would affect church lobbying efforts and would undermine First Amendment rights, making opinion writers and bloggers report the sources of their income. The ACLU shares his position. When asked why the energy industry is showing unprecedented interest in defending religion and free speech, Simon did not respond.
Contributors to the opposition include the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity ($25,000), Basin Electric ($30,000), Lignite Energy Council ($25,000), Minnkota Power ($30,000), Greater North Dakota Chamber ($30,000) and the Independent Community Banks of North Dakota.
According to Chaffee, if Measure No. 1 passes, PACs and organizations such as the Lignite Council and the GNDC would have to divulge the original source of the dark money. Individual businesses would not.
Arguably, dark money was introduced into North Dakota politics in a 1993 case that pitted some weekly North Dakota newspapers, including the Adams County Record, Ashley Tribune and Walsh County Record against GNDA for refusing to reveal the funding in support of tort reform. The newspapers suspected that tobacco giant Philip Morris was laundering money through GNDA to fund the effort. Even though some newspapers were members of GNDA, the organization refused to open its books to them. The newspapers also argued that since some taxpayer dollars funded GNDA, the finances should be public record. The North Dakota Supreme Court issued a soft 3-2 ruling for the newspapers but the ruling essentially allowed lower courts to deny transparency into GNDA finances — a win but a loss. (Disclosure: At the time of the suit, this reporter was publisher of the ACR and is now the current owner of the Ashley Tribune.)
Rep. Jim Kasper R-Fargo, has branded Measure No. 1 unnecessary and a “witch hunt.” However, he has been the past recipient of lobbyist-paid “fact-finding” missions to Antigua, Las Vegas and Montreal. But he has vowed to introduce ethics legislation in the 2019 session.
State Auditor Josh Gallion, who is tasked with oversight of such issues, opposes the ethics bill. “Every public employee has a responsibility to maintain transparency and accountability and, as the state auditor, I work every day to make sure that happens,” he wrote in a guest editorial to SayAnythingBlog. “My staff and I are committed to rooting out fraud, waste and abuse of hard-earned tax dollars. Demanding our legislature to sign a blank check for services the taxpayers already pay for is a waste.”
Chaffee and Butcher say Gallion is an example of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
If Measure No. 1 passes, an ethics commission would be formed by the governor and the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate — currently two out of three are Republicans. Butcher and Chafee say the Legislature would specify who would have to report lobbying efforts and conflicts of interest. They say the suggestion that opinion writers and citizens traveling to Bismarck to talk to legislators would have to report is a smokescreen.
Currently, 39 states have an independent ethics commission with authority over the state legislature. Seven states have an ethics commission without authority over the state legislature. Six states have no independent commission; with four of these relying on legislative ethics committees. Wyoming does not have an ethics commission or an ethics committee within the legislature. North Dakota has an interim Legislative Ethics Committee which is a part of the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee.
A “yes” vote on Measure No. 1 supports the formation of an ethics commission.