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Opponents of ND constitutional amendment proposal lambaste 'arrogant' attempt to shift power

North Dakota Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, testifies in favor of his proposal to alter the process for enacting constitutional amendments at the state Capitol Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Opponents of a proposal to alter the process for amending the North Dakota constitution hammered the idea as an effort to undermine the will of the voters Thursday, Jan. 10.

As introduced, the proposal would require constitutional amendments approved by North Dakota voters to gain support from the Legislature in the following two sessions. Its primary sponsor, Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, offered an amendment Thursday that would allow voters to override the Legislature if it rejected the voters' decision.

The proposal faced a barrage of criticism during its first legislative hearing Thursday afternoon. The Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee didn't take up Hogue's amendment or vote on the legislation after the hearing.

Hogue said the proposal, which itself would amend the constitution and therefore require voter approval, is meant to protect the state government's organizing document from well-funded outside interests. He said he first became concerned with the issue in 2014, when voters ultimately declined to create a conservation fund that could have claimed billions of dollars in oil tax revenue.

Hogue said his resolution would allow for a more deliberative method of considering constitutional amendments and emphasized that it would not change the process for altering state law or referring statutes passed by the Legislature.

"It attempts to instill democracy in the way we amend our constitution," he said.

Opponents took the opposite view, warning that voters' ability to assert their will through the ballot box would be hampered if lawmakers could overrule them.

"It's a blatant and arrogant attempt to shift power away from the people and in the hands of (the) Legislature," said former Democratic state Sen. Tracy Potter.

North Dakota is one of more than a dozen states with a direct initiative process for amending its constitution, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It requires nearly 27,000 signatures, or 4 percent of the state's population at the 2010 Census, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

But the process has received scrutiny in recent years as voters approve measures unpopular with the Republican-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers formed a bipartisan committee that included leaders of various interest groups to study the issue ahead of this year's session.

Ralph Muecke, a semi-retired farmer from Gladstone, N.D., said he ran an unsuccessful ballot measure campaign in the 1990s to impose term limits for elected officials. He disputed any suggestion that the process is an easy one, citing the time and money required to gather thousands of signatures.

"The people we elect are to represent us in state government. Instead they are rapidly becoming a ruling monarchy," Muecke said in prepared remarks. "Anybody that takes away my rights had better have their running shoes on."

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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