AP NEWS

Republicans seek to raise bar on constitutional amendments

March 1, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature’s attempt to make it more difficult for citizen-led initiatives that aim to change the state constitution squelches residents’ participation in the legislative process and is contrary to the will of the people, lawmakers were told Thursday.

Beulah power plant worker Kevin Herrmann told a Senate committee that the lawmakers “are determined to attack” the initiated measure process “to restrict the power away from the citizens of North Dakota.”

Herrmann said the Legislature’s attempt at raising the threshold on citizen-initiated measures “will hamper or stop” residents’ right to amend the state constitution.

Waylon Hedegaard, president of North Dakota AFL-CIO, told lawmakers his group will oppose attempts to change current requirements.

“The power of the people is sacred,” he said.

The Legislature’s move to make it more difficult to change the state constitution is inspired in part by some successful ballot measures funded largely by out-of-state interests.

Senators voted early this month to allow the Legislature to vote on the measure following voters’ approval. The initiative would go back to voters for final approval if it fails to win lawmakers’ endorsement.

A new House resolution would raise to 60 percent the margin necessary to approve a constitutional amendment, instead of a majority. A separate Senate resolution would require the same 60 percent threshold, but would double the number of signatures required to put a measure before voters.

Voters ultimately would have to approve the changes.

Beulah GOP Sen. Jessica Unruh, sponsor of the Senate resolution, said she has “no desire to usurp the will of the people.”

“But our constitution is vulnerable,” Unruh told the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee. “The code to change it has been cracked and it’s an easy one.”

Under her resolution, each of North Dakota’s 53 counties also would have to meet signature thresholds based on their population, from more than 7,100 in Fargo’s Cass County to just 31 in Slope County, one of the least populated counties in the country.

Unruh said that provision ensures “a level of buy-in from each part of our state.”

The resolution is co-sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and House counterpart Chet Pollert.

Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on ballots if they gather enough signatures from supportive voters. North Dakota is among about two dozen states with some form of an initiative process.

A 19-member panel made up of six lawmakers and 13 citizen representatives appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum was approved by the Legislature two years ago to look into the initiated and referred measure process.

The panel was spurred largely by voters’ surprise approval of changing state law to allow the use of marijuana for medicine and another successful ballot measure funded almost solely by a California billionaire that amended the state’s constitution to protect the rights of crime victims.

Voters approved a successful initiative effort last year that amends the North Dakota constitution to include a sweeping government ethics overhaul. The measure is aimed at adding transparency and accountability to government.

The measure, which got 53 percent of the vote in November, would not have been successful under proposals from both the House and Senate, which require at least 60 percent approval.

But lawmakers are scrambling this session to develop rules to comply with the voter-approved constitutional amendment.

Herrmann, the Beulah power plant worker, said it’s a problem that the Legislature created itself, by voting down for years Democratic-sponsored bills aimed at ethics reform — something that “forced” citizens to get it on the ballot.

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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Herrmann’s last name in one reference.