Voters say yes to overhaul of government ethics, no to pot

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) - An idea that couldn't gain traction in the North Dakota Legislature is now a reality for public officials, lobbyists and others after voters approved a constitutional amendment to overhaul government ethics oversight.

The initiative billed as an anti-corruption amendment has provisions to ban foreign money from elections, restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission, among other things. North Dakota is one of a handful of states without such a panel, which Democrats have unsuccessfully promoted for years.

"I really think the reason that it wasn't able to get done at the Legislature is that politics in North Dakota and across the country has become a sport ... instead of doing what's right," said Mandy Kubik, executive director of North Dakotans for Public Integrity, the group that sponsored the measure. "These reforms that really need to happen get caught up in winning and losing and scoring points."

The measure calls for the ethics commission to be created within two months and calls for a longer timeline for other provisions, said Dina Butcher, president of North Dakotans for Public Integrity.

Democratic House Minority Leader Corey Mock, who last session sponsored a bill to create an ethics commission, said the measure will have a "lasting impact in the political landscape" of North Dakota. He added that he didn't agree with all its provisions and wouldn't say whether he voted for it.

"I'm glad that we're having a constructive conversation about ethics in North Dakota and I am glad we are going to be able to hold a lot of the officials accountable," Mock said. "I think now the onus is going to be on us on how we respond and how to we implement this so the process can move smoothly."

It will be implemented with new Republican leadership on the House side. Longtime Rep. Al Carlson, who opposed the ethics measure, was defeated in his bid for re-election. Carlson had been in the Legislature since 1993 and majority leader since 2009.

Opponents like Carlson said the measure was poorly worded and it was a solution in search of a problem. They also worried it could be used as a weapon for political purposes and hurt people who don't hold office. The American Civil Liberties Union also came out against it, saying it risks restricting political speech and advocacy.

Arik Spencer, CEO and president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the state's largest business organization that came out against the measure, said he wouldn't be surprised if there are legal challenges to some of the provisions.

"We are certainly disappointed with the results," Spencer said. "I don't know if voters were aware of some of the language in the measure that gave us pause."

It was the language in another highly-publicized measure, one to legalize marijuana, which led voters to reject that idea. Deb Honeyman, 54, of Bismarck, said it was too vague. Norm Robinson, campaign manager for North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana, said it "was simply too wide open for North Dakota."

"There was no regulation, no revenue stream," Robinson said.

North Dakota State University student Bradley Foster, 22, who supported the measure, said the state might be more willing to accept the idea in two years.

"My thought is first and foremost that 2020 isn't that far away," said Foster, a member of Legalize ND. "The opposition didn't get a win. I think they delayed the inevitable."

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