Commission on Initiated Measures and Referral Process Must be Watched Carefully

The Legislature’s Commission to study the initiative measure and referral process have succumbed to partisan maneuvering by Rep. Ben Koppelman and Rep. Al Carlson in the final weeks of the session. Throughout the life of SB 2135, many different commission models were discussed. The final product created by amendment in conference committee should raise some eyebrows and demand our full attention as the commission begins to study and offer recommendations that may alter the citizens’ power through a direct vote of the people. Let’s look at how we got here.

The first draft of this bill created a rather small commission but lacked key stakeholders. For example, the commission to review the citizen’s initiative process lacked citizen members to provide input. This concern, among others, were raised to the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee where they were taken into consideration. To their credit, the committee worked diligently to address many of those concerns, adding citizen members, along with a tribal member, a member of the state’s public employee’s union, ND United (NDU), and a member of the minority party in the legislature. It was a major step in the right direction to secure credibility of this commission. It passed the Senate.

The House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee had other changes in mind. Removal of the tribal and NDU members in exchange for three more legislators and seven total citizen members. Growing the commission’s makeup adheres to their “small government” principles, I guess. The House also wanted to look at the impact of “out-of-state funding” and “whether limits” should be placed on how much those outsiders can spend. I’m sure the 2014 outdoor heritage initiative was on their mind when this section was added. Remember, while the opponents of that measure bemoaned “out-of-state” funding from Ducks Unlimited, they also gladly received millions of dollars from “out-of-state” oil industry organizations to defeat the measure. If capping out-of-state spending for measures is a good idea, I wonder if they’d be open to capping out-of-state donations to their personal campaign accounts? It passed the House.

On to conference committee to hash out the differences between the two bills. This is where the concern of partisanship creeps into the picture. Rep. Pam Anderson (Democrat, Fargo) declared her willingness to go along with the Senate version of the study. That willingness led Rep. Ben Koppeleman, who I’m told was still bitter about not getting his way of a more partisan makeup earlier in the process, to get Majority Leader Al Carlson to remove Anderson from the conference committee. She was quietly replaced by newly elected Rep. Johnston.

The conference committee further amended the bill. In their compromise, three Republican members of the House are to be appointed by Rep. Carlson. Three members of the Senate, two Republican members, and one Democratic member will take part in the commission. All three are to be appointed by Senator Rich Wardner, the Republican Leader in the Senate. The minority, now with one member, doesn’t even get to select their own to be on the committee. Why are the House Republicans afraid of that? Better yet, why are they afraid to let a Democrat in the House even participate? Is this another, “To the victor go the spoils” moment? If so, that mentality may jeopardize the credibility of this commission’s recommendations.

Gaining a firm grip on the citizen initiative and referral process has long been a desire of the Legislature. Attempts to shift how, when, and where signatures can be collected along with other alterations have found their way into bill form over the years. All of them have had the underlying motivation of creating more legislative control over the citizen’s actions. I’m not saying this study is without merit. But to ensure this isn’t another partisan maneuver to eliminate the checks on their power, it must have balance. The final makeup of this commission was strategic, you must ask why certain individuals and groups were refused a voice at the table.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge many of the initiated measures are a direct result of the Legislature’s inaction. The referrals, a direct result of their action. I hope this commission created by the same Legislature works in good faith and doesn’t try to underhand the citizens’ power. To ensure its recommendations are credible, we must keep a watchful eye on this commission.

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