If the Voters Approve Bad Policy, Does That Make It Good Policy?

I talked about this on today’s podcast, but I thought the Fargo Forum’s Sunday editorial was worth responding to in the form of a blog post as well.

(Full disclosure, I’m employed by the Forum Communications Company.)

“Legislative leaders are taking steps to gut the constitutional amendment that voters approved in the November election to establish an ethics commission,” the Forum editorial board opines. “Legislation to implement the measure makes a mockery of what voters intended.”

They continue:

House Bill 1521, introduced by Rep. Chet Pollert, R-New Rockford, the House majority leader, and Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, the Senate majority leader, is a maneuver that would severely weaken safeguards intended to keep corruption out of state government.

Candidly, we didn’t support the ethics measure because of certain flaws. But the voters have spoken, and this legislation is a perversion of the will of voters. It’s also part of a troubling pattern, evident with the legislature’s aggressive reworking of the medical marijuana measure, of legislative contempt for voters’ wishes.

You can read HB1521 for yourself below. I’ve already weighed in on the merits of the proposal. While I’d prefer an implementation of Measure 1 that honors more fully that proposal’s draconian, anti-speech provisions so that a court challenge can more easily strike it down as the affront to the 1st amendment it is, the Republican proposal is a dutiful, good-faith effort to implement what the voters approved in the least odious manner.

But the relative merits of HB1521, and Measure 1 in general, aren’t what I’m concerned about.

What concerns me is this attitude the folks at the Forum have adopted – one that’s common in North Dakota politics – which is this fetish for direct democracy. This belief that somehow the voters are infallible when legislating at the ballot box.

Once upon a time, the Forum saw Measure 1 as bad policy. “[W]e’re troubled by the creation of an appointed commission whose mission, fortified by its enshrinement in the constitution, is not well defined — so vague, in fact, that budget officials were unable to estimate its fiscal impact,” the paper wrote in an October editorial urging a “no” vote on Measure 1.

If Measure 1 was bad news in October, isn’t it still bad news in January with the Legislature convened?

“Also, Measure 1’s vague wording leaves open the possibility that state officials could require citizens to disclose any expenditures of more than $200, conceivably having to report gas, meals and lodging for a trip to Bismarck to testify before a legislative committee, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union,” their editorial continued. “Although well intentioned, it’s a fatally flawed proposal. We’d like to see greater transparency of money in politics, but this isn’t the answer. Vote no on Measure 1.”

If Measure 1 was bad news in October, isn’t it still bad news in January with the Legislature convened?

Did the voters approving Measure 1 suddenly make it less problematic, from a 1st amendment standpoint?

Apparently the folks at the Forum think so, and what’s the sense in that?

Their argument is based on the idea that the Legislature isn’t showing enough fidelity to the will of the people, but I’d remind you that the constitution of the Legislature is also a reflection of the will of the people. Every lawmaker in the House and Senate chambers is there because they won an election.

The American system of government is full of checks and balances. One of the problems with the initiated measure process is there aren’t nearly enough checks and balances. Well-moneyed interests can buy their way onto our statewide ballot, bamboozle voters with millions spent on marketing, and get their hobby horses inserted into state law (or, in the case of Measure 1, our state constitution).

What’s so bad about the Legislature acting as a check on that process? Isn’t it any different than the governor vetoing a bill the Legislature passed?

The Legislature should gut Measure 1, because as even the Fargo Forum admitted in October, Measure 1 is not good public policy.

The electorate is not infallible.

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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