What if I told you that North Dakota taxpayers were recently put on the hook for a legislative summit in Nashville, TN to the tune of over $81,000? And that the overall cost for North Dakota legislators and Legislative Council staffers attending was nearly $90,000? Or that the most recent annual membership dues, to the organization hosting the summit, cost North Dakotans nearly $130,000? It’s all true. Let me explain.
The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) was established in 1975 to “be a champion of state legislatures”. Since NCSL has a nationwide presence, their membership includes over 7,300 legislators and more than 20,000 legislative staffers. According to the description found on their website:
“NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.”
It seems election or appointment to the North Dakota Legislature means automatic membership in the NCSL. And according to information obtained through an open records request by The Minuteman, North Dakota paid $129,770 in annual membership dues for the fiscal year July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.
Each year the NCSL holds an annual summit in which its members from across the country gather for a variety of things like business meetings, informational sessions, and even social events. As you might imagine, it’s a large event with significant costs involved.
This years summit was held in Nashville, TN from August 5th – 8th. North Dakota officially sent 29 people as attendees. The makeup of the group was 20 legislators (15 Republicans & 5 Democrats) and 9 staff members from Legislative Council. There were a number of topics on their four-day agenda. Informational sessions included things like the census, sports betting, school safety, the Supreme Court, autonomous vehicles, and more. Nine of the sessions were actually livestreamed and are even available for viewing on Facebook.
On August 9th, I submitted an open records request to Legislative Council seeking information concerning the cost of membership in the NCSL, how attendees were chosen, and the expense of the summit. While it took some time for them to gather the requested information, Legislative Council was exceptionally cooperative. Initially, they provided me with their most current expense report and noted that they would send an update when everything was turned in. On Thursday of last week, I received that update as promised. According to their expense report, the “Grand Total” for North Dakota’s 29 attendees to attend the NCSL summit in Nashville was $89,987.98.
In responding to our open records request, we were also informed that the NCSL is providing $1,000 stipends to five legislators (Senators Judy Lee, Ronald Sorvaag, Ray Holmberg and Representatives Craig Headland and Don Vigesaa). Judy Lee also received a $2,350 Jack Tweedie Scholarship. And Allen Knudson (Budget Analyst & Auditor for Legislative Council) received two stipends totaling $1,400. If my calculations are correct, these offset costs by a total of $8,750. Which means taxpayers were on the hook for the remaining $81,237.98. That works out to an average of $2,801.31 per attendee after deducting the stipends and scholarship.
I want to make it clear that I have no problem with the existence of the NCSL. But should the state really be forking out taxpayer dollars for membership in such an organization?
One might argue that the NCSL is an effective lobbying arm in Washington, DC on behalf of the states. But I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing. Take for example the session on “Juicing Up for Electric Vehicles” that took place on Wednesday’s agenda. One of its speakers was Jonathan Levy of Evgo Service, LLC out of California. Now, that name probably means nothing to you, but with some research you’ll see that he was a former policy advisor to Rahm Emanuel. Yes, that same Rahm Emanuel who was a Senior Advisor to President Bill Clinton, served in the Illinois House of Representatives, was White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, and — until May of this year — was Mayor of Chicago. In addition to this, Levy also served in a number of positions for the Obama administration.
Admittedly, without video footage, we can’t say for certain where Mr. Levy fell on the issue of electric vehicles. But that’s kind of the point. Based off of his previous employment, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where his ideology probably falls.
So, how can North Dakotans be certain that the lobbying agenda the NCSL ultimately sets — for a variety of issues — actually represents our wishes? In short, we can’t. Which is one reason why I believe that membership in such an organization should be optional and paid by those who choose to join, not taxpayers.
My concerns with all of this don’t stop there. If you look at the daily agenda for the NCSL summit, you’ll notice the social events. And no, I’m not talking about Dolly Parton’s appearance at the opening day General Session. There was the Music City Country Picnic in downtown Nashville and the Boot Scootin’ Block Party featuring “music legend” Trace Adkins. Put events like these together with the typical late night scene in Nashville and one word comes to mind— party. It makes one wonder how much alcohol was involved in the meal reimbursement category of the Expense Report.
When a reader first tipped me off to this event, I must admit that my mind first turned to the idea that some (not all) attendees would likely attend for the social/party scene alone. Much of the information I’ve come across might lend some credibility to the thought. Which also causes me to wonder why at least one of the legislators was even given the go ahead to attend.
You might recall that in October of 2018 Rep. Craig Headland (R – District 29) was added to the list of North Dakota politicians to get a DUI. Yet, Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R – District 29) approved his attending the NCSL summit. I’m not so sure that’s a demonstration of good judgment on the part of the majority leader. You’ll notice they’re from the same district. Did that have any bearing on Pollert’s decision?
In looking at the names of those who attended the summit, there’s some others who also don’t shy away from the drinking scene. One of them in particular is well-known in Bismarck political circles for his hankering of adult beverages. I won’t mention his name, but some readers will know exactly who I’m talking about.
In addition to all of this, we have another nuance to the overall issue. Apparently legislators and staffers weren’t the only ones to attend the summit. It seems no political scene is complete without lobbyists. If you’re real familiar with Bismarck politics, then you might have noticed this reality in the picture attached to the article. The picture was taken in Music City and was posted by Rep. Jake Blum (R – District 42) to Facebook. Those worth noting — that I can identify — are Representatives Don Vigesaa (R – District 23), Michael Howe (R – District 22), Mike Nathe (R – District 30), and Jake Blum himself, together with registered lobbyists Ryan Kelly, Lacee Bjork Anderson, Donnell Preskey, Don Larson, and Megan Smith Houn. The list of entities represented by these lobbyists is too long to list. You can click here to see them on the Secretary of State website.
Look, I get it that we all have friends. But overall this chummy situation between lobbyists and legislators doesn’t look good at all. Especially at the expense of taxpayers.
Think of it. At the end of the day, if we total it all up, North Dakotans paid $211,007.98 for all of this to become a reality. Heck, even retiring State Senator Dwight Cook (R – District 34) tagged along— a swan song of sorts, I guess?
By the way, Senator Cook had the highest reimbursement for lodging ($1,464.65) of the 29 attendees. On the bright side, Senator Jordan Kannianen (R – District 4) was the only legislator not to claim per diem. And I have to give kudos to Legislative Council’s Claire Ness. Not only did she honor our open records request, but she was the most frugal of the 29 attendees going to Nashville. Her grand total was $1,618.18— which is $1,183.13 below the adjusted average cost per person.
What exactly did we — the people of North Dakota — get out of this trip? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But from where I’m seeing it, pretty much nothing— except the bill.
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