We published an article back in September which shed some light on a legislative summit that some of our very own North Dakota legislators and Legislative Council staffers attended in Nashville, Tennessee. The cost of that trip was about $90,000— about $81,000 of that was funded by taxpayers. And that’s not even counting the $130,000 membership dues we paid to the organization who hosted it.
One aspect that raised eyebrows about the Music City trip was the fact that it wasn’t just 20 legislators and 9 staffers from North Dakota who attended the summit. A number of lobbyists were there too. We didn’t pay their way, thankfully. But Rep. Jake Blum (R – District 42) — who has since resigned and moved to Minnesota for employment reasons — posted this picture to Facebook of a bunch of them together. The chummy relationship between legislators and lobbyists — on a trip funded in large part by the taxpayers — just didn’t look good. Which is probably why Blum removed the picture.
Early last month, we mentioned another taxpayer funded trip for legislators that took place from December 4th – 7th— this time in Puerto Rico. That’s right, another example of living the dream— largely on our dime.
At the time, we speculated that this conference — hosted by The Council of State Governments — could end up resulting in the Health Department winning its fight to regulate Food Freedom in North Dakota. This was due to the fact that some needed votes from the Administrative Rules Committee were on the trip.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Their votes wouldn’t have been enough to stop the regulation anyhow. In the end, seven Republicans joined two Democrats in siding with the Health Department.
Nevertheless, as a result of this report from the Bismarck Tribune, we now know that the Puerto Rico trip was attended by 14 state lawmakers (11 Republicans and three Democrats) and cost $49,500. That’s a higher cost per person than the aforementioned Nashville trip, which isn’t altogether surprising. After all, it is Puerto Rico.
The Tribune first reported on the trip in early December— just three days after we mentioned it in the article we published. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R – District 37) defended the trip, calling it “important” and saying that, “We shouldn’t treat North Dakota as an island.” Which is kind of a funny statement, considering the fact that lawmakers were attending a conference on an island. But I digress.
As was the case with Nashville, legislative leadership justifies these types of conferences — and the expenses that go along with them — by pointing to networking with lawmakers from other states and the “important” information they get from the sessions they attend. You know, things like marijuana policy and cybersecurity.
I suppose those are arguments to be had, but what about things like the scheduled tour of a rum distillery in Casa Bacardi? That was “important” for the state, right? Couple that with some of the activity going on during the Nashville trip, and we’re left to wonder whether lawmakers attend these things with state business on their mind or treat them more like a vacation in which they can wine and dine with legislative associates from around the country?
Some years back, one of my own representatives literally bragged about such a trip in one of our district meetings. He had taken his wife out of the country with him. He went on about the expenses picked up by “the state” and how they were able to rub shoulders with important people. He was pretty proud of himself. I, on the other hand, wasn’t impressed by the way he flaunted spending taxpayer dollars for what was essentially a vacation with his wife. As you might imagine, I left that district meeting with a bad taste in my mouth.
Now, am I saying that nothing valuable comes out of these events? Not at all. For those focused on state business — who are there with the right intentions — I’m guessing there’s good information to bring back to the Peace Garden State. But is it $50,000 or $90,000 good? And that’s not even considering the membership dues to organizations like these, which — in the case of Nashville — were nearly $130,000. Furthermore, is this the only way to get relevant information? I’m skeptical.
We’re waiting on a response to our own open records request regarding this event. Perhaps that will shed some light on a number of unanswered questions. Yet, in the meantime, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that we need to reevaluate how appropriate trips like these are in the future.
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