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ND voters to decide measures on higher ed, constitutional initiatives

Changes proposed to higher ed board, constitutional initiatives

Jill Schramm/MDN Minot State University is one of 11 state institutions governed by the State Board of Higher Education. Voters will decide in November whether to increase the size of the board.

North Dakota voters will be deciding the fate of two constitutional measures when they cast their ballots this fall.

Measure 1 changes the size of the Board of Higher Education, while Measure 2 injects the Legislature into the process of initiating constitutional measures.

If Measure 1 is approved, the Board of Higher Education would increase its membership from eight to 15 and terms would run for six years instead of four years. No member could be a legislator, statewide elected official or full-time state employee. One of the 15 positions would continue to be designated for a student enrolled in one of the state’s higher education institutions.

A governor’s task force had looked into changing the governance of the state’s 11 institutions of higher learning and recommended creating three boards – one for each of the research universities in Fargo and Grand Forks and one for the four-year universities and two-year colleges.

The proposal offered to the Legislature was a two-board model presented by Rep. Shannon Roers-Jones, R-Fargo. The Legislature rejected an overhaul of the governance and agreed to ask voters to approve a simpler change for a larger, single board.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, who had served on the task force, said the size of the eight-member board was an issue.

“There’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of portfolios to carry. Everybody on the board is a citizen member and most of them have another job. They found out there was a lot of work that could be done that wasn’t getting done, such as visiting the campuses and being more connected with the individual campus’s administration,” Heckaman said.

“I hope that the people accept this because I think it’s a way to have a smoother system with more board members,” she said.

A further change to the constitution would remove the Supreme Court Chief Justice as one of the nominators of board applicants, substituting the Secretary of State. Heckaman said the change eliminates a potential conflict of interest for the chief justice.

Measure 2 impacts the process for citizen-initiated constitutional changes.

Currently, constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot by the Legislature or by citizens who petition and collect voter signatures equal to at least 4% of the state’s population.

Measure 2 mandates that initiated constitutional amendments appear only on general election ballots, and if approved by voters, the amendments go to the Legislature for ratification. If the Legislature doesn’t approve, an amendment returns to the ballot, where voters ultimately decide its fate.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, said the measure is necessary because of the number of out-of-state groups that have been pushing constitutional measures. Measure 2 doesn’t prevent constitutional amendments from being proposed and voted on, but it slows the process to allow for public hearings before the Legislature, said Hogue, who sponsored the measure language during the 2019 legislative session. The Legislature voted the measure onto this November’s ballot.

Hogue added the proposed process is not new. From 2014 to 1918, the same process of legislative ratification was in place for constitutional measures.

ProtectND, a coalition opposing Measure 2, sees the measure as a legislative power-grab and an attempt to curtail the ability of citizens to provide a check and balance on the Legislature.

“All of this has been done in the name of curbing the ability of out-of-state big monied interests, which is a legitimate concern, but no excuse for punishing future generations of North Dakotans with a nearly impossible system,” the coalition stated. “In basic terms, the proposal put before the voters in November would divert the will of the people on constitutional measures back to the legislature for approval, essentially a veto of the people. If the legislature rejects the amendment as approved by the voters, it would go back to the voters for a second vote, essentially a veto-override.”

Dustin Gawrylow, founder of the North Dakota Watchdog Network and ProtectND, said the measure won’t achieve the goal of preventing out-of-state interests from financially backing constitutional measures. By dragging out the amendment process, the measure drives state citizens to out-of-state money to fund their efforts. Meanwhile, monied organizations seeking to influence North Dakota’s constitution won’t be intimidated, he said.

A third constitutional measure that would have rewritten many election processes won’t appear on the ballot. The North Dakota Supreme Court removed the measure last month on the grounds it embedded a statute into the state constitution, where it can’t be changed by normal legislative procedure. Opponents who took the case to the Supreme Court had argued the petition circulated for signatures failed to include the full text of the measure and misled voters regarding its content.

The measure would have put legislative redistricting into the hands of the North Dakota Ethics Commission, created an open primary with all candidates on a single ballot and set up a ranked-choice voting system.

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