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Measure No. 2 will make initiatives expensive

By Lloyd Omdahl - | Sep 19, 2020

Measure No. 2 on the November ballot has been proposed by the Legislature to make the proposal and adoption of amendments to the state constitution so expensive that ordinary citizens will be ruled out of the process.

At the present time, the constitution provides for citizen-inspired amendments that gather over 27,000 signatures to be placed directly on the ballot for a single pass-fail vote by a majority voting on the measure.

Constitutional amendments are often used to put legislation beyond the reach of the legislature since the legislature is not free to alter the constitution without a vote of the people.

This was the strategy of the group sponsoring the creation of the ND Ethics Commission. Without protection of the Commission from the Legislature, the Commission could be restricted or even abolished by the Legislature if it started turning up malfeasance.

Under Measure 2, petitioners must go through the cost of gathering 27,000 signatures and then conduct a state-wide promotional campaign to convince the electorate to vote for it. As a former advertising manager, I know that it takes more than $100,000 to get simple facts to the voters.

After a sponsoring group has spent around $150,000 on its proposal, it must then bring it to the Legislature for approval. If the Legislature disapproves, the measure goes on the ballot for a second time and another minimum of $100,000 must be spent on a second campaign to inform the public.

It is important to keep in mind that the Legislature is biased against the initiative process and will take a skeptical look at any initiated proposal to amend the constitution. During its review, the Legislature knows that every constitutional amendment limits its jurisdiction so we can expect that every citizen-sponsored constitutional amendment to be rejected.

The added cost of a second election means that only proposals backed with big dollars will stand a chance of adequately financing a 2-election ratification process. As a rule, citizen groups do not have access to large caches of money.

One of the sponsors of Measure No. 2 claimed that there is presently no forum in which the sponsors can explain their proposal. So he suggested that they come to the legislative session for a public hearing on the House and Senate floors. It would be like throwing the Christians to the lions.

The Legislature has already set up its own hearings on initiated and referred measures. Legislative thinking was that such hearings would generate great exposure to expose the flaws of initiated proposals. It was a publicity bust that generated no screaming headlines.

The only thing that would be achieved with hearings before the two chambers would be a lot of knit-picking for which advertising dollars ought to be spent in the commercial media.

Money pouring into the state from nonresident corporations and interest groups would be curtailed if Measure No. 2 were passed, sponsors claim. So we kill the initiative process to protect ourselves from out-of-state money. Give me a break! The legislative halls are clogged biennially with lobbyists paid by out-of-state interests.

Actually, the very presence of a constitution is based on the suspicion that it isn’t safe to leave the whole of government to the Legislature. In the late 1800s, state governments became corrupt and couldn’t be trusted so amendments initiated by the people say “we don’t trust you” to do the right thing all of the time.

Measure No. 2 is the Legislature telling the citizenry that the people can’t be trusted so we are going to make it impossible for citizens to alter the constitution.

The legislative track record suggests that citizen initiatives are still worthy tools in the arsenal of democracy. Measure No. 2 warrants a “NO” vote.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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