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Bill seeks costs of protecting, transporting North Dakota governor

North Dakota state Rep. Bill Devlin, chairman of the Administrative Rules Committee, listens during a meeting on medical marijuana Monday, March 12, 2018 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — A North Dakota Republican lawmaker is pushing a bill requiring the state Highway Patrol to disclose the costs of protecting the governor.

Rep. Bill Devlin of Finley said Friday, Jan. 11, lawmakers have been “frustrated” by a lack of financial disclosure and said his bill would help guide budgetary decisions.

“I don’t want to jeopardize security. All I want to know is after the fact what it cost,” said Devlin, a former newspaper publisher. “To me, it’s an open government thing.”

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor doesn’t generally comment on bills until they reach his desk and his office doesn’t discuss his security.

The legislation, House Bill 1363, would require the Highway Patrol to provide quarterly records to legislative staff disclosing the costs of protecting and transporting the governor and lieutenant governor. The bill also mandates the state Department of Transportation to do the same for state aircraft costs.

The agencies must retain the records, which would be open for public viewing, for at least three years under Devlin’s bill.

Burgum’s office was the subject of a state audit last year that scrutinized an “inappropriate” use of state aircraft, but the governor defended his office's travel as a "prudent" use of taxpayer money. The audit also said there were "no issues" to report regarding the security provided by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, but it didn’t provide details “due to the confidentiality of executive security.”

Democratic state Rep. Corey Mock sought information about the costs to protect the governor’s office through a records request last year, but the Highway Patrol said it doesn't track those specific expenses.

A Legislative Council attorney said last year that a previous request for the information was denied using security exemptions to the state’s open records law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But after reviewing the statutes, legislative history and attorney general opinions, the attorney argued “the costs of Highway Patrol services are not protected from disclosure.”

Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, called it a “stretch” to use the security exemptions.

The head of the Highway Patrol, Col. Brandon Solberg, worried the bill would disclose too many details about the governor's security but understood the desire probe taxpayer spending.

"If there was a way for legislators to view this information and keep it in a confidential format, then I would say that would be great," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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