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Opinion Column: Legislators still hate the petition process

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Taking advantage of last year's petition signature scandal, some legislators have proposed to tighten up the procedure by which citizens can initiate laws, refer acts of the Legislature and amend the constitution.

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New provisions proposed in House Concurrent Resolution 3011 include:

1. Require that measures costing more than $20 million be submitted in a general election;

2. Outlaw payment to petition circulators for gathering signatures

3. Raise the number of signatures for the referral and initiative from 13,000 to 18,000;

4. Require that a minimum number of signatures be obtained in at least 27 counties.

Last year's scandal involved payment for collecting signatures. While HCR 3011 deals with that issue, the sponsors add irrelevant restrictions on the referral and initiative process.

The 27-county requirement has nothing to do with signature fraud. Neither does raising the number of signatures required to refer or initiate laws.

Let us not be naïve. History tells us that the Legislature has never liked the petition process because it enables citizens to bypass and second-guess recalcitrant assemblies. It's a power thing.

The only reason we have the initiative and referendum is because the Progressive movement created such pressure on the 1913 Legislature that it was forced to do something. So it proposed a system that was almost unworkable.

To initiate or refer a law, the original language required signatures from a majority of counties equal to 10 percent (8,600) of the legal voters. Initiated measures had to be submitted to the Legislature before becoming effective.

To amend the constitution, 25 percent (21,600) of the legal voters in a majority of counties was required.

If approved by the people, proposed amendments would go to the Legislature for ratification. If the Legislature refused to ratify, the amendment would go back to the people for another vote.

In 1914, the voters approved these cumbersome provisions and then at their first opportunity in 1918 they eliminated the obstacles, such as signatures from 27 counties, and provided 7,000 signatures for referrals, 10,000 for initiated measures, and 20,000 for constitutional amendments, with no involvement by the Legislature.

But the Legislature never accepted the new provisions and periodically attempted to make the petition system more difficult. The most common tact was to propose an increase in the signatures.

Signature increases were proposed by the Legislature in 1932, 1936, 1940, 1942, and 1958. Almost all proposals required doubling or tripling the signatures. All were voted down by large margins.

There is little doubt that the Legislature once again intends to make the referral and initiative processes more difficult. The most grievous change proposed in HCR 3011 is the requirement that a significant number of signatures be collected in each of 27 counties.

This raises a question about the equality of all North Dakotans regardless of residence. Take some measure that is peculiar to the urban areas, bonding for urban infrastructure, for example. Even though the larger cities may be the only ones with a stake in the proposal, they would have to go to Slope, Kidder, Grant, Burke, McHenry and other rural counties to get signatures on a measure that did not concern rural residents.

There is no argument against the proposal to outlaw payment for signatures. The initiative and referral are for North Dakotans and should not be left vulnerable to well-funded out-of-state interests that could subvert the best interests of the state.

But requiring signatures in 27 counties and raising the number of signatures? We junked those ideas 95 years ago. The resolution should be stripped down to solve the problem at hand.

(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)

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