If the Legislature Wants More Control Over Initiated Measures They Had Better Be Ready to Make That Case to Voters

Shane Goettle, a member of the committee sponsoring Marsy's Law, speaks at a press conference in the state capitol in May 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)

I am delighted to learn the House has passed SCR4001, introduced by state Senator David Hogue of Minot, on a 63-30 vote.

The constitutional amendment was amended a bit by the House – you can read the version which was approved by that chamber below – and those amendments will need to be approved by the Senate. If they do so, and that seems likely based on conversations I’ve had with lawmakers, the issue will then go to the ballot.

Which is the point of this post. But before we get to that, let me describe for you what SCR4001 does:

  • It applies only to constitutional amendments. Nothing would change in the process for ballot measures changing the North Dakota Century Code.
  • Ballot measures amending the constitution would only be voted on in general elections, the idea being that general elections (as opposed to June primary votes) get the most voter turnout.
  • Any constitutional amendment approved on a general election ballot would then need to be approved by the next session of the Legislature.
  • If a simple majority of each house of the legislature approves the amendment then it is deemed enacted.
  • If either house votes it down, the amendment goes back on the next general election ballot. If voters approve it again, it’s enacted.

This makes the process for amending North Dakota’s constitution much harder, and much longer. A constitutional amendment approved by voters on the November 2020 ballot would see it enacted, at the earliest, by the summer of 2021. If the Legislature voted it down, the earliest would be after the 2022 election (assuming voters approved it again).

That’s as it should be. The constitution – whether we’re talking about the state-level document or the supreme law of our country – should be open for amendment, but the process for that amendment should be rigorous with multiple checks and balances in place.

As it stands now any political interests with enough money to pay signature collectors and PR flaks – like the California billionaire behind “Marsy’s Law” or the Hollywood celebrities behind the “ethics” measure last year – stand a good chance of getting their hobby horse embedded in our state’s most important legal document.

Amending the constitution should require something more than a pile of money.

Sometimes within a matter of months.

Amending the constitution should require something more than a pile of money. This amendment changes that, which is good.

But, this amendment will also have to be approved by voters. Which brings me to the point of this post.

Now that lawmakers have (more than likely) put this issue on the ballot they cannot just walk away from it. If they want voters to give them some say in the initiated measure process for constitutional amendments, they must organize a campaign to explain why. Otherwise voters are going to view this as a power grab from the political elite.

Too often lawmakers put significant policy reforms before voters, and then put almost no effort into making an affirmative argument for it.

In 2014 lawmakers put an amendment on the ballot to replace the State Board of Higher Education with a three-member commission, but nobody from the Legislature organized a campaign for it and it died with just 25 percent of the vote.

In 2016 lawmakers made changes to the corporate farming law, but when the issue was referred to the ballot there was again no organized campaign in favor of it, and it also got just 25 percent of the vote.

Again, I’m glad SCR4001 passed. This is a necessary change to a very stupid status quo. But now that lawmakers have passed it, they had better be ready to convince voters why this change needs to happen.

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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