Referendum talk beginning in N.D.

The Associated Press BISMARCK -- As the Legislature nears its end, discussions are beginning about whether voters should decide if legislators deserve a pay raise, and whether North Dakota's school superintendent should be a licensed teacher. Sin...

The Associated Press

BISMARCK -- As the Legislature nears its end, discussions are beginning about whether voters should decide if legislators deserve a pay raise, and whether North Dakota's school superintendent should be a licensed teacher.

Since statehood, North Dakota law has required the superintendent of public instruction to be a qualified teacher. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says the requirement is probably unconstitutional, and the state House and Senate have approved a bill to abolish it.

The incumbent superintendent, Wayne Sanstead, said the Legislature's action has some North Dakotans considering a referendum campaign. Sanstead has held the job for 22 years.

"Don't think the talk isn't out on the street," Sanstead said. "People are upset by this bill, and I've been hearing a lot from them."


Activists who favor keeping the requirement have raised two possibilities: a referral campaign to repeal the new law, or an initiative to make the licensed-teacher rule part of the constitution.

The referendum option would need petition signatures from 12,844 North Dakota voters in 90 days. A constitutional initiative would require gathering 25,688 names in a year.

Max Laird, a Grand Forks teacher and former president of the North Dakota Education Association, and state Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, have mentioned the possibility of referring the law on their personal Web journals.

Laird unsuccessfully ran against Sanstead three years ago. On his Web journal, Laird wondered whether Stenehjem's legal opinion would thwart a referendum campaign.

"Why would I even consider a referral? It is time that the education community draw the line in the sand. We have been pretty wimpy for years now," Laird wrote. "Having a licensed teacher in this office has been, and will be, the only way to effectively address the needs of kids and schools."

Activists are already organizing a referendum campaign against an unrelated proposal to raise the pay of state legislators, although its final version has not been approved by either the House or Senate.

Mandan attorney John Gosbee, a veteran of referendum campaigns against tax increases and compulsory seat-belt laws, believes any legislative pay rise should be put before the voters, rather than allowing lawmakers to vote themselves higher compensation.

Most lawmakers also benefit from the health insurance plan that covers North Dakota government workers. Employees do not contribute a share of the monthly premium, a benefit that is extended to legislators.


Gosbee said North Dakota state government employees normally must work 20 hours a week before they are eligible for health insurance. Legislators are covered even though they are normally in session for four months every two years, he said.

"Since the Legislature works roughly a quarter-time job, I don't think they should get any health insurance at all," Gosbee said.

The health insurance benefit is now worth $554 monthly. Its monthly cost is expected to rise to $658 during the state's 2007-09 budget period. Almost all of the Legislature's 141 members have signed up for the plan.

The school superintendent legislation and the legislative pay bill are at much different stages in the legislative process.

The superintendent bill has not been presented to Gov. John Hoeven, who has said he will sign it. Once legislation is signed by the governor and filed with the secretary of state, the referendum clock begins ticking. Activists who oppose a bill have 90 days to gather and turn in petition signatures from at least 12,844 North Dakota voters.

The legislative pay bill, after languishing on the North Dakota Senate's calendar, was shipped back to the Senate Appropriations Committee last week for additional work. In its present form, it would raise legislative pay about 4 percent annually for the next two years, an increase in line with what lawmakers have already given state employees.

Gosbee testified against the pay measure last month, when it included a 12 percent increase in legislators' compensation during sessions. They are now paid $875 weekly when the Legislature is in session, and the bill sought to raise the weekly wage to $980.

"The latest pay raise plan they've got supposedly puts them on parity with state employees," Gosbee said. "Actually, they've got a good idea. Parity is a good idea. And no state worker gets health insurance who works 10 hours a week."


Gloria Lokken, the president of the North Dakota Education Association, said the teachers' group has not formally discussed a referendum campaign against the superintendent qualifications law. The subject may arise at a meeting of the NDEA's representative assembly in Bismarck on April 14, Lokken said.

"We really haven't had that conversation as an organization yet. We've been busy dealing with the day-to-day workings of the Legislature," Lokken said. "I think it's a little too early to be addressing that issue ... We have to get through the legislative session."

The legislative pay bill is HB1106. The superintendent qualifications bill is HB1169.

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