Bill Would Require Double Legislative Approval of Constitutional Amendments Initiated by Petitions


Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, chairman of the Judiciary Interim Committee, presents the committee's report on Marcy's Law study to legislators on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Bismarck. 11-14-2018

There is a lot of concern among some political observers – including this one – that the initiated measure process is in desperate need of reform.

Currently a committee of citizens can submit signatures to amend statute, and even the state constitution, without the involvement of the elected Legislature at all. Supposedly this is a populist mechanism we’re all supposed to be proud of. A pure expression of the grass roots interests of the electorate.

In reality, it’s become an avenue by which deep-pocketed, mostly out-of-state interests (such as the Hollywood activists behind the “ethics” ballot measure this cycle, or the disgraced California billionaire behind the Marsy’s Law effort in 2016) can muscle their ill-conceived pet issues into law by buying their way onto the ballot and drowning out opposition with expensive marketing.

This is a problem for anyone paying attention, but the way in which some fetishize initiated measures has made reform difficult.

Which brings me to SCR4001, introduced for the upcoming 2019 legislative session by state Senator David Hogue (R-Minot), which would require approval by the Legislature for any constitutional amendment approved by voters on the ballot.

Double approval, in fact, as you can see from the proposed changes to the law (full bill below):

Note that this would not impact ballot measures which merely amend statute. Only the process for constitutional amendments would be changed.

I like the concept behind this.

When the Legislature wants to amend the constitution they must pass legislation (like Hogue’s) which then must be approved on the statewide ballot. But no such check-and-balance exists for constitutional amendments initiated by political committees. This amendment would change that, using the Legislature as the balance.

I’m a bit dubious about the requirement for approval in two consecutive legislative sessions – that seems a bit like overkill, especially if it’s required of constitutional amendments put on the ballot by the Legislature in the first place – but that’s a simple compromise to make on the bill.

Voter-initiated measures amending the constitution should have to be approved by a vote of the next Legislature. Those initiated by the Legislature shouldn’t have to be approved at all.

Anyway, I hope this legislation, or something similar to it, can be passed this session. Though, again, the chest-thumping populists who value bromides about the “will of the people” over the reality of how initiated measures work today will no doubt try to shout this down. They’ll argue this is a power grab by the political elites.

Given that Hogue’s amendment would have to be approved by a statewide vote (as I just described), said chest-thumping might just win the day.

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