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ND ballot measure panel to examine proposals to tweak process

Sen. David Hogue (R-Minot) speaks on HB 1310, a bill that would allow guns in schools, during floor debate on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, in the Senate chamber. Sen. Hogue was among the 27 senators who voted against the bill that failed to pass in a 27-18 vote. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune file photo

BISMARCK — A North Dakota committee plans to examine more than a dozen proposals later this month to alter the state’s ballot measure process.

One proposed constitutional amendment would require initiated measures that have attracted enough signatures to be submitted to the Legislature for a vote. If lawmakers or the governor reject the measure, it would be placed on the next general election ballot, according to a draft of the resolution shared with Forum News Service.

Minot Republican Rep. Scott Louser, a member of the Initiated and Referred Measures Study Commission, said that’s meant in part to provide access to Legislative Council staffers experienced in drafting legislation. Moreover, it would save measure backers time and money if the Legislature approved it, he said.  

Louser denied that he’s trying to take away people’s rights, a common refrain from those examining the ballot measure process. North Dakota currently allows citizens to place policy proposals directly on the ballot.  

The study commission will discuss the bill drafts during its March 20 meeting at the state Capitol. The panel is chaired by a former state Supreme Court justice and includes state lawmakers, several people appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum and representatives of North Dakota interest groups.

The commission has until Sept. 1 to make recommendations to Legislative Management, a powerful interim committee. That deadline is just months before the 2019 session starts.

“I think there will be more than one that comes out of that committee for recommendation,” said Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, a member of the study commission.

Democratic Sen. Erin Oban of Bismarck said she’s “open to the discussion that our commission has, but I’m going to draw a pretty hard line if this is going to create a burden for citizens.” She opposes requiring that initiated measures go through the Legislature before they’re put on the ballot, however.

Hogue, who sponsored the bill creating the commission last session, has said the review wasn’t a direct response to the recent medical marijuana debate or the victim’s rights measure known as Marsy’s Law, but rather a culmination of issues that have come up over the years.

Legislators rewrote what they said was a flawed medical marijuana law after voters approved it in 2016, the same year the Marsy’s Law campaign faced criticism for being funded by a out-of-state billionaire.

Other proposals the commission will consider include allowing initiated measures to be voted on only during the general election and permitting non-North Dakota residents to circulate petitions. Another would require lawmakers and the governor to approve spending for constitutional amendments that mandate a certain level of general fund expenditures.

Oban, who voted against creating the commission in the first place, said it’s brought some “good conversation.” She noted, however, that changes to the ballot measure process would have to be approved by the full Legislature or by a vote of the people.

“When you can have a series of meetings … to discuss the process and (if) there are ways to improve it, that never hurts,” Oban said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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