Billionaire's Pet Issue On North Dakota's Ballot Is Why We Need Initiated Measure Reform

Shane Goettle, a member of the committee sponsoring Marsy's Law, speaks at a press conference in the state capitol on Tuesday morning prior to petitions, shown in front of podium, being delivered to the Secretary of State's office. In back from left are Marsha Lembke, Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert, Kelly Leben of the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department, Lacee Anderson, Kathleen Wrigley and Nicole Peske. TOM STROMME/Bismarck Tribune

Over the years I’ve come to be very skeptical of the initiated measure process in North Dakota.

I haven’t always felt this way. In  years past there have been ballot measures that I enthusiastically supported because I thought they were good policy. But increasingly it seems like the initiated measure has become a way for deep-pocketed interests to bypass North Dakota’s elected representatives in the Legislature.

Last cycle we had Measure 5 which would have created a slush fund for conservation activists and was backed by big money groups like Ducks Unlimited.

This cycle we have Marsy’s Law, the pet project of California billionaire Henry Nicholas who has, so far, been the ballot measure’s only source of financial support.

Per the year-end financial disclosure Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, LLC, filed for 2015 (see below) the group raised $421,969 with every penny coming from Nicholas. 

The group hasn’t had to file a financial disclosure for 2016 yet, but Mike Nowatzki reports that Nicholas has now spent over $1 million on the effort.

I think Marsy’s Law is a terrible idea which will dilute protections for the accused in North Dakota’s criminal justice system, but you may feel differently. The larger point here is that the measure is a shining example of how vulnerable our laws are to initiated measures.

I think Marsy’s Law is a terrible idea which will dilute protections for the accused in North Dakota’s criminal justice system, but you may feel differently. The larger point here is that the measure is a shining example of how vulnerable our laws are to initiated measures.

“We’re changing the North Dakota constitution because some eccentric billionaire in California had a bad experience with the California courts,” Fargo defense attorney Mark Friese told Nowatzki.

That sums it up well, I think. Because Nicholas has decided to push his hobby horse here in North Dakota those opposed to his ideas will have to spend money to defend our laws from his campaign. Just as North Dakotans had to band together and spend money to defend the state constitution from the conservation activists last cycle.

When is enough, you know, enough?

Initiated measures are a sacred cow. Efforts by lawmakers to reform it have failed. People generally buy into the idea that legislating at the ballot box is a good thing. The “will of the people” and all that.

But it is not a good idea. It’s a bad idea. And not just because of Marsy’s Law or Measure 5 last cycle or any of the other nonsense North Dakotans have been asked to vote on in recent years.

The legislative process in Bismarck is far from perfect – and I’m definitely in favor of the people’s ability to refer laws passed by the Legislature to the ballot – but at least it has a process. Checks and balances including multiple chambers of the legislative body, and veto authority from the executive branch, which put far more scrutiny on any given proposal than ballot measures get.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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