Corporate Farming Referendum Proves We Need More Transparency For Petition Committees

The North Dakota Farmer’s Union appears to have successfully referred reforms to the state’s ban on corporate farming to the ballot (SB2151 passed earlier this year). The North Dakota Secretary of State’s office, which is currently reviewing petitions submitted by the NDFU, is saying that it seems likely that the group got the requisite number of signatures.

But the group is also being defensive about the provenance of those signatures after I pointed out that – despite their claims of a “volunteer” and “grassroots” effort – they spent tens of thousands of dollars and used 17 of their employees to gather the signatures.

The sponsoring committee reported no contributions or expenditures related to the signature gathering effort, but the NDFU filed an independent expenditure report June 16 showing it had spent $41,314 dating back to March, including $39,123 for NDFU employees.

Silrum said the NDFU technically didn’t have to file the report. A change in state law that will require independent expenditure filers to report spending related to a measure or petition doesn’t take effect until Aug. 1.

“So Farmers Union has chosen to be transparent,” Silrum said.

Kayla Pulvermacher, director of 4member advocacy for the NDFU, which with 40,900 family memberships is the state’s largest farm organization, said via email that the expenditures were reported “because it was the right thing to do.

“We don’t believe we have anything to hide,” she said.

Well, yeah they sort of did have something to hide. These neo-populist crusaders want to keep in place an archaic bit of anti-corporate law, but inconvenient for them is the fact that their referendum isn’t really a populist effort. This wealthy and powerful lobbying group basically bought their issue onto the ballot. That’s what their financial disclosures show.

But the NDFU is right. They didn’t technically have to file those disclosures. While such disclosures will be required starting August 1 per the reforms passed in HB1309, we still aren’t doing enough.

It is relatively easy for groups like the NDFU to legislative from the ballot box. If you’ve got deep enough pockets you can hire professionals to circulate your petitions to low information voters who will sign just about anything put in front of them. Yet the public has decided that they like the initiated measure and referendum process (I find myself growing more skeptical of it every day), so if we’re going to keep it in place we need more transparency on the groups who push petitions.

The changes which go into effect on August 1 are a good start, but we need more reporting more often throughout the petitioning process.

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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