Here’s an Idea for Initiated Measures: Require That They Go Through the Legislature First

Brandon Muhs, front, of Fargo, North Dakota, pushes a dolly cart with boxes containing petition signatures into the Secretary of State's office on 7-11-2016 for a medical marijuana initiative for consideration on the November ballot. Initiative committee chairman Rilie Ray Morgan, second from right, and his wife, Rita, far right, also of Fargo, were among a group of supporters gathering at the state Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The initiated measure process is a terrible way to make public policy, and the 2016 election cycle proved it.

Not only did voters approve a medical marijuana measure that forgot to, you know, decriminalize medical marijuana they also cast their ballots for Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment which is already diminishing the amount of justice we get out of the state’s criminal justice system.

That the latter passed because the California billionaire backing it could afford a better sort of marketing campaign than the prosecutors and defense lawyers and cops who opposed it shouldn’t be lost on us.

Before the 2017 legislative session is a bill, SB2135 in introduced by Senator David Hogue (R-Minot), which would institute a study of the initiated measure process.

Referendums give voters the opportunity to veto policies passed by lawmakers. This proposal would also allow them to resurrect policy questions rejected by lawmakers.

I hope the bill passes (it was approved 38-8 vote in the Senate and is now before the House), and if the study goes ahead I had a proposal worth reviewing:

Require that all ballot measures first be considered by the Legislature.

I have no problems at all with the referendum process (where voters gather signatures to put a bill passed by lawmakers on the ballot), and this proposal would be akin to that. Referendums give voters the opportunity to veto policies passed by lawmakers. This proposal would limit ballot measures to policies rejected by lawmakers.

We are already free to take a bill rejected by the Legislature and put it on the ballot, but what I’m proposing is that no piece of policy could make it to the ballot without first going through the legislative process.

This would protect us from stupidly written ballot measures like the medical marijuana proposal. It would also be a check on deep-pocketed interests, like billionaires with a political hobby horse.

Getting a bill introduced in the Legislature is easy. It requires that just one lawmaker put their name on it. Plus, every bill introduced by lawmakers gets a committee hearing and a vote (unless withdrawn which requires a unanimous vote of the chamber).

Requiring that a proposed ballot measure first goes through the Legislature would subject to a more formalized sort of scrutiny than they typically get.

Ballot measures aren’t going anywhere, but we can and should make the process better.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from 1-2pm weekdays.

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