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Omdahl: Legislature questions voters’ intelligence

By Staff | Sep 19, 2014

Measure 4 on the November ballot is the latest attempt by the Legislature to restrict citizen use of the initiative process by which voters can propose measures for a vote of the people.

If passed, it would prohibit the secretary of state from putting on the ballot any citizen proposal that would direct the expenditure of money for a specific purpose. Apparently, legislators question the intelligence of the voters.

This is the latest in a never-ending series of attempts by the Legislature to make it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative. In the past, most attempts have been aimed at raising the number of signatures required for filing petitions. They all failed.

This time the Legislature wants to be sure that it has exclusive control over the huge surpluses in the state treasury. It is afraid that citizens who see neglected needs will win the support of the electorate to appropriate money.

The Legislature should be reminded that these surpluses would not exist without the adoption in 1980 of a measure initiated by the people to add a 6.5 percent tax on oil production. The Legislature was doing nothing about the puny oil tax it had levied 25 years earlier.

Let’s look at the Legislature’s track record.

First, there’s the Legislature’s mismanagement of the money from the tobacco settlement in which North Dakota was awarded over $800 million. Even though Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp won the lawsuit, the Legislature was quick to grab the money for programs other than fighting tobacco addiction.

To get the Legislature back on track, Heitkamp and other tobacco fighters initiated a measure directing the Legislature to spend tobacco settlement money on tobacco addiction. The voters approved the measure.

But the 2013 Legislature, in a petulant fit, refused to accept the decision of the voters. It started stripping out key provisions of the initiated measure. The effort failed only when the leadership could not muster the two-thirds vote needed to change an initiated measure.

Meanwhile, the Legislature held the appropriation hostage until the last day of the session when it relented and belligerently approved funding the program to fight tobacco addiction.

By proposing Measure 4, the Legislature is telling North Dakota citizens that they are not to be trusted with money. Many citizens feel the same way about the Legislature. That is why we have provisions in the state constitution for the initiative and the referendum.

There are pressing needs that have been neglected by the Legislature and may require initiative petitions to appropriate money in the future.

One is the need for more support for clean water, conservation and parks. Even if Measure No. 5, proposing a significance increase in such funding, is defeated, the need will not go away. A new initiated measure may be necessary.

A recent public opinion poll revealed strong public support for such programs.

Another critical need is funding for statewide preschool education. The last session did nothing except authorize cash-strapped school districts to raise their own money for preschool. There is wide public support for preschool education. This may require an initiated measure.

Generally speaking, the governor and the Legislature have done quite well with state money. Nevertheless, the Legislature sometimes develops blind spots when it comes to new needs and new opportunities.

Historically, North Dakota citizens have been very responsible in dealing with money issues on the ballot. There is no justification for questioning their intelligence.

Measure 4 an unnecessary restriction on citizen participation in their government.

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