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Will laws-by-petition turn ND into California? Recent run of ballot initiatives concerning to some

FARGO — North Dakota’s bulging budget surplus produced in part by the oil bonanza has sparked interest in ballot drives for spending initiatives or tax cuts.

North Dakotans have never been bashful about taking their concerns to voters in the form of ballot measures, whether by initiative or referendum.

A tally by the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office shows voters have weighed more than 480 ballot measures since statehood in 1889.

But legislators and some others are worried North Dakota policymakers could find themselves shackled if the state goes the way of states like California, where a litany of sometimes contradictory tax-and-spending mandates were imposed by voters.

Others argue, however, that voters should not be deprived of the right to weigh in directly on important issues involving public spending.

The debate will culminate next November, when voters could face two contradictory proposals to amend the state constitution on fiscal policy.

A measure placed on the November 2014 ballot by the North Dakota Legislature would bar petition-initiated constitutional amendments involving direct appropriations of public funds for a specific purpose, or those that would require lawmakers to appropriate funds for a specific purpose.

Meanwhile, conservation advocates are circulating petitions with the aim of asking voters in November 2014 to amend the state constitution to create a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Fund. That proposal, which would set aside 5 percent of the oil extraction tax, would collect about $150 million during the 2015-17 biennium.

Plenty of petitions The use of initiated ballot measures is heating up after going through a lull from 1998 to 2010, when 10 initiated measures appeared on the ballot during a span of 14 elections, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said.

Eight elections had no initiated measures on the ballot, by Jaeger’s tally.

What explained the seeming complacency?

“I guess I don’t really want to read anything into it,” Jaeger said. “It just didn’t happen.”

Then came 2012, when petitions put five initiatives and a referendum on statewide ballots — including a failed measure in June to outlaw property tax.

Besides four proposed constitutional amendments placed on the November 2014 ballot, groups are circulating petitions for three other measures, including the conservation fund amendment.

The battle lines over the conservation fund proposal already are forming, spotlighting the simultaneous legislative bid to restrict constitutional amendments for dedicated spending.

The outdoor heritage initiative is backed by many mainline conservation groups but is opposed by a coalition of farm groups, energy industry interests and the state chamber.

Andy Peterson, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, an influential business lobby, said its members fear North Dakota’s budget process could get tied up in knots if interest groups repeatedly go to the ballot with pet spending priorities that become enshrined in the constitution.

He believes North Dakota’s economic success, as well as legislative fights on hot-button social issues such as abortion, help to explain the resumed interest in ballot box activism.

“What’s changed in the recent period is North Dakota’s become much more prosperous,” Peterson said. “I think we’re in for a period of prolonged ballot initiatives.”

Peterson and some others find that worrisome, citing problems California and some other states have experienced because of ballot box activism entangling the budget.

A major reason the chamber opposes the conservation fund expansion is that, if budgetary problems result, it could only be undone by voters, since it would require amending the constitution.

“It will set a precedent for our state,” Peterson told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s Editorial Board this month. “I just don’t want this to be successful.”

Restrictions rejected Despite his opposition to the conservation fund amendment, Peterson is not in favor of the measure to bar voters from amending the constitution to direct spending.

A better way, in his view, would be to make it more difficult to amend the constitution with spending mandates by making it more difficult to place such proposals on the ballot.

“The Legislature shouldn’t have the ability to override the populace, because that’s why the initiative is there,” Peterson said. “The bar should be high and difficult to get to.”

Initiated constitutional amendments require 26,904 petition signatures. Peterson favored a proposal, rejected by lawmakers, to require signatures from a certain percentage of voters in each county, so mass signature collecting at big events was not so easy.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, is one of the sponsors of the measure to bar constitutional amendments to direct spending.

He cites California as a cautionary example, which some influential economists have said suffers economically from its cumbersome ballot-passed budget constraints.

“California’s revenues went up just like North Dakota,” prompting a cottage industry of professional petition pushers, Hogue said. “When you have that, you have all these interest groups that have ideas about how to spend money.”

Well-financed interests can mount television advertising campaigns and circumvent legislative scrutiny, which is not good for public policy, Hogue said.

“It’s a much better vehicle if you’re a special interest group,” he said of ballot drives.

But Lloyd Omdahl, a retired political scientist and former Democratic lieutenant governor, said North Dakota voters have acted with restraint. In Omdahl’s view, states that have encountered budgetary problems from ballot initiatives usually are those that passed tax restrictions that make it difficult to sustain public services.

From 1889 to 2008, citizens petitioned to bring 45 constitutional amendments to the ballot, 26 of which were approved, according to a compilation by Jaeger’s office. During that period, citizens brought a total of 131 initiatives, 55 of which were approved, and voted on 72 referendums, approving 26.

Omdahl noted that the initiative and referendum have contributed noteworthy and lasting institutions to the state. The Bank of North Dakota and state mill and elevator were passed by the Non-Partisan League-dominated legislature in 1919, then referred by opponents to voters, who upheld their creation in the June primary.

That progressive era in North Dakota saw its share of ballot activism, he said.

“They had quite a few back in that time,” he said.

Also, North Dakota voters have rejected attempts to limit access to initiated measures or referendums eight or 10 times by Omdahl’s count.

“It’s going to be an uphill fight for them to get approval,” he said of the measure barring petition drives for constitutional amendments that mandate spending. “People seem to be very jealous of their initiative and referendum.”

Measures on the North Dakota Nov. 4, 2014 ballot

Constitutional Measure No. 1: Relating to the inalienable rights to life of every human being at every stage of development.

Constitutional Measure No. 2: Relating to the prohibition of the imposition of mortgage taxes or any sales or transfer taxes on the mortgage or transfer of real property.

Constitutional Measure No. 3: Relating to repealing the existing Board of Higher Education and to creating a three-member commission of higher education appointed by the governor.

Constitutional Measure No. 4: Relating to the fiscal impact of measures to initiate constitutional amendments and to the placing of initiated measures on the ballot.

North Dakota ballot petitions being circulated: -- Statutory petition related to parental rights and responsibilities.

-- Constitutional petition related to a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Trust and Fund.

-- Statutory petition related to school classes beginning after Labor Day.

Source: North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to