Legislative lobbyists navigate through new restrictions

The pandemic and ban on gifts to lawmakers have changed how lobbyists go about their daily work

By Dylan Sherman

N.D. Newspaper Association Education Foundation

BISMARCK – A loss of personal interaction. That’s how Levi Andrist, lobbyist and president of the North Dakota Lobbyists Association, describes the change in how lobbyists work compared to previous years. 

“The halls are, generally speaking, very quiet as compared to previous sessions,” he said. 

Lobbyists, like lawmakers and everyone else in the Capitol, have to follow the coronavirus guidelines, such as wearing a mask and limiting personal contact, and abide by new ethics guidelines banning gifts.

“Our culture is really based on looking people in the eye and shaking hands,” Andrist said. “So it is unfortunate that the pandemic has thrown a wrench in that.”

The political process is really based on relationships and policy, he said. Now, as most people can’t look each other in the eye or shake hands, it makes it more difficult to discuss public policy.

Andrist said there have been some positives to the new layout, with online participation being one of them.

“Access to subject matter experts that may not be able to come to North Dakota amidst the pandemic has been really critical for our clients,” he said. “It is an excellent tool that I think many committees have found valuable.”

Andrist said his firm prefers to have experts for its testimony, and allowing them to virtually testify has given them a great advantage.

“When you have a subject matter expert being able to virtually testify, the difference there in comparison to previous years is flying from Washington, D.C., to Bismarck, N.D., for the day,” he said. “I think it’s a great advantage to have the virtual option, but at the same time we do miss the personal interactions that make public policy-making fun.”

John Olson, lobbyist and owner of Olson Effertz Lobbying & Consulting, said virtual participation has made it easier for his clients across the state to participate this year.

“It’s a good thing, there are still some obstacles, but for the most part I think it has been pretty successful,” he said.

However, the loss of personal contact has made it difficult to go about day-to-day issues.

“If there is a little problem going on, it is harder to solve than just walking up to the clerk or chairman and getting an issue resolved,” he said.

Olson said meaningful conversations are harder to have this year, noting that he sees it in every business.

“You are much better able to gauge human response; if there are problems with communication it is always best to address those on a personal basis,” he said.

Lobbyists also had another change to make, Olson said, as a ban on all gifts to legislators began this year.

North Dakota voters passed a ballot measure in 2018, said Dave Thiele, executive director of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, which resulted in the gift ban to elected officials.

Thiele said the commission was created in 2019 and was tasked with defining the measure.

The language of the measure prohibited any gifts between any public officials and lobbyists, said Thiele. The only exception is if a lawmaker and lobbyist are immediate family.

Thiele said lawmakers and lobbyists have not been troubled by the new change.

“[Lobbyists and lawmakers have said], ‘We can live with whatever the answer is, we just need to know the rules,’” he said.

Andrist said he was pleased the commission went about it in an open way.

“[The ethics commission] have tried to create a culture of compliance, not one of gotchas,” he said. “That to me is very healthy for any regulated community.”

The usual gifts Andrist would see lobbyists give would be trinkets and small gifts representing a company or organization — “the mugs of the local association, or political subdivision, the squishy balls, those types of knick-knacks,” he said. 

Thiele said the dialogue between citizens and legislators is still important, and he recognizes lobbyists are a key component in that.

“Events, where it is more than just a lobbyist and elected official, [need to] have an education component and then they simply have to report to [the commission] the who, what, when, where and why,” he said.

Olson said the conversations with lawmakers, whether it be at lunch or dinner, have been some of the most important in the past.

“There was always opportunity after the business and stress of the day, to get together on a social basis to have those conversations in a more relaxed setting,” he said “Those afforded a lot of opportunity to give and take on a personal basis.” 

However, Olson attributes much of the fall-off in social interaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think they both go hand in hand … it is probably due as much to the pandemic as the gift prohibition,” he said.

As the session goes on, especially with the new federal administration in office, Olson said he believes agricultural and energy organizations will want to hold gatherings with lawmakers, while following the new reporting guidelines. 

Not all lawmakers are pleased with lobbyists not being able to pay for lunches and dinners anymore.

According to the Associated Press, Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, District 39, has sponsored HB 1424, which would give legislators who live outside Bismarck taxpayer-funded money to pay for meals. 

Penalties for not abiding by the regulations depend on how much a gift is worth, Thiele said. Generally, the civil penalty would be two times the monetary value of the gift. 

Thiele said he wants to make sure the process is as open and easy for all lobbyists and lawmakers.

“If someone makes a mistake we want them to contact us, and we’ll fix it, educate and move on,” he said.

Daniel Weiss, senior executive director of pharmacy benefits at Sanford Health Plan, testified virtually on Jan. 6 before the N.D. House Human Services Committee on HB 1032, which relates to drug prescription costs. Virtual testimony over Zoom is now available during North Dakota’s 67th legislative session, which lawmakers hope will improve access for people across the state and lessen the risk of Covid-19.
NDNAEF photo by Dylan Sherman.

A pilot program for attending committee meetings online began in 2019, Bjornson said, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for alternative means of public access to meetings.

“We had concerns about making it accessible to as many people as possible,” he said. “Our IT staff worked really hard to design, to the best of their ability, a process that eliminates hurdles and makes it as easy as possible.” 

As with any new procedures, Bjornson said, there likely will be kinks along the way, but the state is prepared to fix any issues that come up.

Josh Askvig, state director of the North Dakota AARP, said the switch to online viewing and testimony is an opportunity for himself and association members.

“We have members who live in Grand Forks and Williston who have always wanted to participate, but that is a long drive to come down for a hearing,” he said. “Well, now they can watch it online from their home, and there are also virtual testimony options for them now.”

Askvig said understanding the new technology has less to do with age and more to do with an individual’s own comfort with technology.

“There are folks that are well into their 70s and 80s who will have no problem doing it,” he said. “The more they use it, the more they will be comfortable with it.”

Askvig said the state AARP has started training and working with members and volunteers on accessing the tools to participate in proceedings this year.

“Another approach we have been taking is [asking] what other ways can we encourage members to reach out to legislators,” he said. “Whether it be via email, phone calls or hand-written messages and post cards, those are all tactics that we have not relied on as heavily in the past.”

While usually a regular at the Capitol, Askvig said this session will be different as he will try to be more judicious about when he needs to be there in person. “[We want to make sure] legislators understand that when we are in the room, this is a big priority for us,” he said.

Askvig said this session will be weird even for himself when he has to testify virtually for the first time.

“I wish we could all be together,” he said. “Obviously the right steps and measures have been taken to encourage people to be physically distant and wear masks.” 

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, said it is great that people have more access, but he worries about online testimonies overwhelming his committee.

“[Anyone] can attempt to testify virtually, and it is up to me, as the chairman, to try to filter that out,” he said. “At least in my committee people that show up have priority.”

Weisz said he wants members of the public to have their voices heard, rather than leaving the virtual podium to experts from around the country. Virtual testimony also could make it more difficult to gauge the perception of the room, he said.

“I still think for most of us [on the committee], the personal interaction, facial expressions, mannerisms and reactions all help us kind of get a sense of who’s where,” he said.

Weisz echoed the concern that older constituents might not want to drive long distances to participate in a particular hearing. “People of my generation and older may be discouraged by it, but at the same time I am 75 years old – I don’t want to drive from Edgeley or Grafton and I can do it virtually,” he said.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said while it will be different without as much public in-person attendance, he hopes some of the changes will help people who can’t make the trip to the Capitol, this session and in the future.

“If members of the public are able to participate and want to testify, we are able to have them participate remotely,” he said. “I am hoping to see more engagement and participation from folks back home in Grand Forks.”