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The 'Blackout Six' intend to hide important ag data

(Monday, Feb. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Dean Hulse, The Forum, 02/02/03: Six North Dakota legislators have some explaining to do. They are Sens. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, Ron Nichols, D-Palermo and Reps. Wes Belter, R-Leonard, Gene Nicholas, R-Cando, and Chet Pollert, R-Carrington. These six have introduced legislation designed to conceal government business.

Senate Bill No. 2256 is probably one of the shortest pieces of legislation in North Dakota’s history, but because it hinders access to government records – which are public records – it’s also probably one of the most disrespectful of democracy and the openness it demands.

Senate Bill No. 2256 creates a new section to chapter 44-04 of the North Dakota Century Code. Here is its nub: “Any record generated by the state seed department as a result of any plant or seed analysis, testing, and variety or disease determination is exempt from section 44-04-18 and section 6 of article XI of the Constitution of North Dakota.”

Ironically, the introduction of this legislation by the “Blackout Six” coincided with the observation of “Sunshine Week” by the North Dakota Newspaper Association. In representing the state’s newspapers, Mike Jacobs, NDNA president, wrote an opinion piece that included the following observations: “North Dakota’s early years were marked by political shenanigans of a truly nasty kind. This contributed powerfully to the reform movement that gave North Dakotans a greater role in government than citizens of almost any other state through initiative, referendum and recall. Sunshine is another legacy of those days. People got tired of how business was done by political bosses …”

Well, some things have changed since those days. One example is the increasing influence in this state by private corporations such as Monsanto Co., the patent holder of Roundup herbicide as well as a GMO wheat – that is, a variety of wheat genetically modified to resist Roundup herbicide. So, I think a more present-tense reflection of Jacobs’s last sentence might go something like this: “People are tired of how business is being done by political AND CORPORATE bosses.”

In offering their bill, the Blackout Six perhaps were thinking ahead to the time when Monsanto releases its so-called Roundup Ready wheat, and seed contamination (the unintentional-yet-inevitable commingling of GMO and conventional seedstocks) becomes a hot issue. I hope the Blackout Six had other thoughts on their minds.

Perhaps, the Blackout Six merely thought that because the North Dakota State Seed Department is a self-funded entity, it doesn’t have to abide by the state’s freedom-of-information laws. But an executive summary contained in the seed department’s June 2000 audit report offers a pretty unambiguous description of the department: “a separate agency of government.”

Current exemptions to section 44-04-18 of the North Dakota Century Code include juvenile records, public employee medical and assistance records, workers compensation and unemployment records, tax information, law enforcement investigation records, and most Department of Human Services records. Through no comparisons do state seed department records justify the level of privacy that the Blackout Six are proposing.

If the Blackout Six are hell-bent on keeping secrets, though, they may consider refusing to reveal their motivation for introducing this legislation.

Dean Hulse, Fargo, is a university English instructor. He can be reached at hulse@i29.net