Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying
Monday, March 19, 2012
Standard Article by Rob Port
Issue: Government Transparency

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North Dakota has strong laws against the use of taxpayer dollars and resources in political activities. According to Chapter 16.1-10 of the North Dakota Century Code, “A person is guilty of corrupt practice within the meaning of this chapter if the person...Is guilty of the use of state services or property or the services or property of a political subdivision of the state for political purposes.”

The law defines “political purposes” thusly: “[A]ny activity undertaken in support of or in opposition to a statewide initiated or referred measure, a constitutional amendment or measure, a political subdivision ballot measure, or the election or nomination of a candidate to public office and includes using ‘vote for’, ‘oppose’, or any similar support or opposition language in any advertisement whether the activity is undertaken by a candidate, a political committee, a political party, or any person.”

That’s a pretty clear statement. Public resources and tax dollars may not be used in support of campaigns for or against things like candidates for public office of initiated measures.

The problem is that it seems public entities in North Dakota have found an end-run around this law. There is a high-profile and well-funded campaign against a measure to abolish property taxes - Measure 2 on the June 2012 ballot - called Keep It Local ND. Several members of this coalition of special interests receive most, or at least a significant amount, of their funding from the government.

The North Dakota Association of Counties, for instance, was created as a lobbying group for the state’s counties and is supported by dues payments paid by the counties. Obviously county governments have a big interest in property tax issues, and while they can provide information to the public about the impact of Measure 2 on their policies, they cannot engage in a political campaign against the measure.

But their lobbyists at the NDAC, paid for by county tax dollars, are engaging in such a political campaign.

The same goes for the League of Cities. The NDLC serves generally function for municipal governments in North Dakota that the NDAC serves for county governments. Municipal governments, too, have an interest in the property tax issue, but are also restrained by the prohibition on using taxpayer resources for political campaigns. Yet the NDLC, supported by dues paid out of municipal tax dollars, is involved in the political Keep It Local ND campaign against Measure 2.

Even the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, an explicitly political organization that makes endorsements for and against political candidates all the time, has received hundreds of thousands of state tax dollars according to the Office of Management and Budget’s online database of state spending. Since 2007 through December of 2011, the various chapters of the Chamber of Commerce in North Dakota had received $450,515.07 in tax dollars. That total doesn’t figure in any dues payments made by local government agencies, many of whom are listed on the Chamber of Commerce websites as members.

We don’t have easy access to those sort of financial transactions because legislation to include local government spending in the OMB’s database was defeated in the 2011 session after a concerted lobbying effort against it by the Association of Counties and League of Cities, among other interests.

Most North Dakotans expect that their tax dollars not be used to oppose or support political campaigns. Measure 2 has elicited a lot of strong debate both for it and against it, but setting that debate aside, is it really appropriate - is it even legal - for groups to take our tax dollars and then engage in explicitly political activities?

That’s a question North Dakotans need to ask themselves, because it certainly appears as though the various levels of our state government have found a way to bypass restrictions on taxpayer-funded politicking.

Rob Port is an NDPC Government Transparency & Accountability Policy Fellow.

Here is a video of Rob speaking at an NDPC Policy Lunch about government transparency: