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Bill would give lawmakers final say on citizen initiatives

December 26, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would give the North Dakota Legislature final say on successful citizen-led initiatives that amend the state constitution, something opponents believe usurps the will of the people.

The legislation was inspired, in part, by a string of successful ballot measures funded largely by out-of state interests, said Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“We need to have a higher bar for constitutional amendments than what we currently have,” said Hogue.

The measure would require endorsement by the Legislature in each of the two sessions following voters’ approval. Public hearings would be held to provide input on the legislation, Hogue said, adding that a successful citizen-initiative “would be reviewed by the people and reviewed by the Legislature, as well.”

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.

Hogue’s bill would require a majority in both chambers before going to voters, since it also is a constitutional amendment, said John Bjornson, director of the Legislative Council, which is the Legislature’s research arm.

Bjornson said he expects other bills “in respect to amending the constitution” after the Legislature convenes Jan. 3.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries (from lawmakers),” he said.

Dina Butcher led a successful initiative effort this year that amends the North Dakota constitution to include a sweeping government ethics overhaul. The Bismarck private investigator called Hogue’s proposed legislation “ludicrous” and a “usurpation of citizen voices.”

“I don’t think it’s going to go over real well in North Dakota, where we have a populist bent and people want to have a say in these things,” Butcher said.

Butcher’s so-called “anti-corruption” measure is aimed at adding transparency and accountability to government, and Democrats had fought unsuccessfully for years to do.

Backers raised more than $600,000 to push it, with much of the money coming from left-leaning out-of-state groups.

Butcher said the initiated measure may not have come about if the Republican-controlled Legislature had not killed several previous attempts by Democratic lawmakers.

Hogue said more attention needs to come to initiatives that don’t directly affect those who fund them. He points to a successful ballot measure that incorporates victims’ rights provisions into the state constitution that was one of the highest-profile and best-funded issues in the November 2016 election. California businessman Henry Nicholas was the sole contributor to the effort, putting roughly $2.8 million into the measure, which is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, his sister, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

Officials representing crime victims, defense attorneys and prosecutors had called it a bad idea that will have unintended consequences.

Another example of outside influence, Hogue said, is when voters last month also passed a proposal to amend the North Dakota Constitution to explicitly bar non-U.S. citizens from voting. The document already defines a voter as a U.S. citizen, but supporters, including a former state GOP chairman, argued the wording is ambiguous and needs to be clarified. An out-of-state group, the Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund, was the biggest contributor, giving about $210,000 toward the effort.

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