North Dakota Begins Study of Citizen Initiative Process

(HPphoto/iStock)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota began studying the citizen-initiative process Monday, a move spurred largely by voters’ surprise approval of medicinal marijuana and another successful ballot measure funded almost solely by California billionaire that amended the ultra-conservative state constitution.

The 19-member commission made up of lawmakers and citizen representatives was approved by Legislature earlier this year to look into the initiated and referred measure process and the cost of placing them on the ballot in North Dakota. It also will look at putting potential limits on measures that are funded by out-of-state interests.

“The message it sends is ‘we don't trust voters.’”
Sen. Erin Oban , (D-Bismarck)

The panel is to meet at least four times over the next year and will make recommendations for the Legislature to consider when it reconvenes in 2019.

Former Supreme Court Justice William Neumann, who heads the panel, said the objective is in no way an effort to “squelch” public participation in the legislative process, a worry that has been expressed largely by Democrats in the Republican-led Legislature.

“The message it sends is ‘we don’t trust voters,’” Democratic Sen. Erin Oban of Bismarck said in an interview.

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Oban, who sits on the panel but voted against the legislation to form it, said some changes to current procedures could be examined, “as long as they don’t restrict voters’ rights.”

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.

Republican Rep. Jim Kasper of Fargo, who also is on the commission, said in an interview that he favors potential limits on out-of-state funding on ballot measures, pointing 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 election.

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California businessman Henry Nicholas put roughly $2.5 million into the measure, which is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, his sister, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983.

The panel’s findings also may force lawmakers to take a more critical look at the effects and threat of citizen-led legislation, they say.

The Legislature in North Dakota in November was caught off-guard by voters who approved the use of medical marijuana, two years after the lawmakers rejected a more stringent bipartisan measure.

Supporters of the measure at that time warned legislators that they would seek a voter initiative that likely would be less desirable to lawmakers.

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The measure, called the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act, won 65 percent voter approval, and sent lawmakers, state health officials and law enforcement scrambling to solve a number of issues, including allowable forms and potency of medical cannabis, and oversight of distributors.

In the end, the Legislature had to work hard to get the needed two-thirds majority to amend the citizen initiative. The voter-approved version allowed far more freedom for citizens to grow and smoke the plant. Lawmakers removed provisions for growing it.