- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Several amendments were offered Tuesday to a Republican bill on ethics reform aimed at making it closer to what supporters say voters wanted when they approved reform in the midterm election.

The constitutional amendment passed in November was framed as anti-corruption, with provisions to restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission, among other things.

Republicans and Democrats have offered competing bills to implement the measure, and both are working their way through the Legislature. The GOP-sponsored House bill was heard in the Senate on Tuesday, while the Democratic Senate bill was heard in the House.

Both bills passed their respective chambers.

North Dakotans for Public Integrity, the backers of the initiative, had earlier called on lawmakers to reject the GOP bill. They said it lacks transparency, sets “almost meaningless” penalties and inadequately funds an ethics commission.

On Tuesday, the group offered amendments that would, among other things, increase fines for ethics violations, define the definition of lobbyist, and cut exemptions for gifts - all of which are in-line with the Democratic bill sponsored by Fargo Sen. Tim Mathern.

North Dakota is one of a handful of states without an ethics commission, which Democrats have unsuccessfully promoted for years in the GOP-led Legislature.

House Republicans and most lobbyists so far have supported the GOP bill, but backers of the constitutional amendment have signaled a lawsuit if their concerns aren’t addressed.

“We can accept the Senate (Democratic) version now,” said Dina Butcher, who helped lead the successful initiative effort. “But if the Legislature tries to supersede the authority of the ethics commission, we have a problem.”

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and his Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner, are the primary sponsors of the GOP bill. Wardner has characterized their bill as a starting point to comply with the reform measure, and said Tuesday he is open to considering amendments.

Wardner said the two bills also may be melded into a single bill before the Legislature adjourns.

GOP Sen. David Houge helped work on Mathern’s bill and also heads the Senate ethics committee that is considering the 45-page House bill. Hogue said Tuesday he is open to amendments to the House bill.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill Tuesday.

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