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Zaleski: Undermining voters is a losing strategy

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Zaleski: Undermining voters is a losing strategy
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

When it comes to respecting voters, the group calling itself “North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation” has all but jettisoned common sense in favor of a curiously offensive strategy. It’s destined to fail.

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A coalition led by the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce has mounted a vigorous and well-funded campaign to oppose the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment, a measure that aims to reserve a comparatively thin slice of oil tax revenues to fund preservation and protection of the state’s outdoor heritage.

The debate is essential, both on the merits of the measure’s goals and on the constitutional mechanism envisioned to achieve those goals. OK so far.

But the “common sense” crowd has been dissing the voters by attempting to kill the debate before the amendment even gets on the November ballot. Their campaign has urged people not to sign petitions that would place the question on the ballot if enough signatures are gathered and validated.

Got that? The chamber and its allies don’t want North Dakotans to vote. They don’t want North Dakotans to have a say on an issue that has emerged as one of the most important public policy challenges in decades: How to conserve and enhance the state’s natural outdoor heritage in the face of unprecedented industrial-style oil and gas development.

What the “common sense” coalition was pushing is not the dictionary definition of voter disenfranchisement, but it’s close. It’s the undisguised arrogance of powerful special interests. It’s a tacit admission that the voters of the state might approve the conservation amendment, which would be a ringing repudiation of the Legislature’s tone-deaf policies regarding wildlife and parklands. It’s an attempt to prevent voters from mucking up the game in the good ol’ boys’ legislative sandbox, where members of the “common sense” coalition routinely work their will, which often is at odds with the majority of North Dakotans.

Don’t believe it? Think about the statewide smoking ban, the measure to bring the workers compensation agency to heel, and the banking privacy measure of a few years ago. Those ballot questions were voter responses to legislative action or inaction, and in every instance the Legislature and establishment interests (bar owners, business lobbyists, bankers) were on the losing end.

Supporters of the outdoor amendment submitted their petitions to the Secretary of State on Monday.

The “common sense” do-not-sign drive seems to have lost steam in the past couple of weeks. The anti-group knows the amendment’s goals resonate among North Dakotans, which likely means petitioners have more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot. That’s the way it should be.

Now let the debate fire up. Now let each side argue the amendment’s merits or lack thereof. Air it out and let the votes fall where they may.

And maybe the state chamber and its jump-on-the-wrong-bandwagon “common sense” allies will in the future refrain from insulting North Dakota voters.

Zaleski is the editorial page editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Email him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com.

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