Petitions Filed to Refer Laws Pertaining to State Auditor Powers, Legislative Emails, and Roosevelt Library Funding


A group of activists have filed petitions with the Secretary of State’s office to refer three pieces of legislation passed during the 2019 session to the ballot.

A referendum, for the uninitiated, is distinct from your typical ballot measure. What we typically talk about are initiated measures, which are petition-driven efforts to create new laws at the ballot box. A referendum is a sort of veto, where a piece of law passed through the regular legislative process is referred to the ballot for an up or down vote.

Here are the three petitions the activists, led by Riley Kuntz of Dickinson, filed today. Remember that a referendum doesn’t have to put an entire bill on the ballot. The state constitution allows for a line-item referendum:

  • Section 5 of SB2001, the funding for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (PDF)
  • Section 3 of SB2004 related to the powers of the state Auditor’s office (PDF)
  • SB2221, exempting emails between lawmakers and public employees from open records requests (PDF)

Two of these are righteous.

Lawmakers gutted the ability of the state Auditor to initiate performance audits, and they did it in a sneaky and underhanded way. That law should absolutely be referred.

The email exemption is unnecessary. Emails lawmakers send and receive are already exempt, and that’s as it should be. I don’t really have a problem giving the people who write the laws some leeway when it comes to making the legislative sausage. Lawmakers want it because, while their emails are protected, those in government they send emails to don’t have the same protection.

Too bad, I say. The current exemption is sufficient.

What I don’t understand is the hostility to the Theodore Roosevelt Library. From what I’ve observed of the complaints about it from those supporting the referendum, they’re upset that it costs too much money. Something they paint as a fiscally conservative position.

But the appropriation is modest in terms of the scope of the project and its importance to our state. And things like museums – along with public libraries, etc. – are squarely in the government’s purview. Preserving history is important, and the government has a role to play in doing it.

I worry that those backing these referendums may have, by targeting the Roosevelt library, doomed their cause by going a bridge too far.

Anyway, each of these petitions need 13,452 signatures submitted to the Secretary of State no later than July 25, which is roughly two months a way.

That’s a heavy lift, but not impossible.

If referendums make the ballot, the laws they’re referring (except for the Roosevelt Library bill because it had an emergency clause) are put on hold until there’s a vote.

UPDATE: A reader sends this along:

There is a wrinkle. In the referral of Section 5 of SB 2001 setting up the endowment for the library, what was missed in the article/discussion is that section of the bill is covered by an emergency clause. This means the section is not suspended by the mere filing of the petitions.  The constitution provides that an emergency measure is not suspended and continues in effect until the voters have passed judgment.

Sections 7 and 8 were not subject to this petition.  Section 7 deals with a transfer of $15 million to the endowment fund and that must be made by June 30, 2019.   Section 8 contains the authority of the governor to borrow up to $35 million from the bank of North Dakota.

I had missed the emergency clause factor in my original post. I’ve edited it to reflect that.