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North Dakota lawmakers should make a resolution for transparency

 

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for North Dakota’s lawmakers: Pass new transparency provisions for political campaigns as well as state and local governments.

The time is right. In Doug Burgum our state has a governor who is promising to reinvent government, making it more accessible and efficient. A big part of his pitch is using technology to facilitate the collection and dissemination of public information.

The Legislature should take Burgum’s rhetoric and turn it into policy.

For instance, a revamp of campaign finance reporting is badly needed. There are major holes in the data reported - state lawmakers don’t have to report the money they spend - and the reports themselves are too few and far between.

We are living in a digital age. Candidates running for public office in North Dakota (not to mention every committee with a measure on the ballot) can file with the North Dakota Office of Secretary of State every week the details of every penny raised and spent.

Opponents will say that this is overkill. Or that it’s too much work for the candidates. That’s nonsense. This information is already deemed important and public. It should be available in a more detailed, more timely fashion.

Thanks to modern technology, reporting it will require just a few extra mouse clicks a week.

It would be good if lawmakers earmarked some dollars to revamp the secretary of state’s campaign finance database. It was updated a few years ago, but it’s cumbersome and confusing for the public and candidates alike. We can do better.

While lawmakers are at it they should make it illegal for state candidates to spend campaign money on themselves.

When this loophole was pointed out by Democrats in a previous legislative session, Republicans refused to pass the bill, arguing there was no evidence of any candidate doing such a distasteful and unethical thing. That might even be true, though how can we tell without the aforementioned spending reports? Even if it is true, will future candidates be similarly scrupulous? In that vein, lawmakers should pass more and better reporting requirements for the financial interests of elected leaders. If we are going to have a part-time Legislature, and if we are going to insist on electing business leaders to public office, we are going to have to accept a certain amount of intersection between public policy and the private business of those making that policy. For years now lawmakers in the Democratic super minority have been carping about the need for ethics regulations. Unfortunately their motivations are utterly partisan. They want a venue for political witch hunts.

We don’t need a committee of politicians and bureaucrats to decide what is and is not ethical.

What we need is better public access to data so that voters can make informed judgments about what is and is not ethical, and then use the ballot box (or if necessary the recall petition process) accordingly.

While we’re at it, the state’s budgets should be put online as well.

The checkbook for the general fund is already available on the Office of Management and Budget’s website thanks to legislation backed by former state Rep. Blair Thoreson, but his efforts to put local budgets online as well have been stymied by a fierce lobbying campaign from local governments. They say it will be too costly and require too much work.

This, again, is nonsense. This data already exists in digital form. Putting in place the mechanisms for reporting it online is a simple problem to solve.

The state should create a central website for the general fund spending database and add to it reporting from local governments. The same website could also include the latest reports from the state’s various reserve funds, too.

These reforms are not only sound policy, but they’re sound politics too, demonstrating to the public that Republicans, even after decades of dominance in state politics in the face of hapless opposition from Democrats, are still committed to accountability.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com,

a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum

Communications commentator.

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