Legislature trying to block amendment measures

Once again the North Dakota Legislature is trying to obstruct constitutional amendments proposed by petition of the people.

At the present time, constitutional amendments initiated by citizens go straight to the ballot for an up or down vote. If approved, the amendment goes into effect.

Under the Legislature’s proposal, a measure approved by the people would first go to the Legislature where, if rejected by the Legislature, it would go to the next biennial election for a second vote of the people.

While the Legislature has had an adversarial attitude toward the initiative process since it was adopted in 1914, it has become incensed with petition sponsors adding language to the constitution which puts subjects outside the reach of the Legislature.

One such addition was the ethics commission which has become Section 14 of the constitution and fills two full pages of text. It violates the standards of good constitution language by including a considerable amount of legislative material, but this is what we end up with when the Legislature stonewalls the public.

Another initiated constitution measure for which petitions have been circulated would make changes in election procedures and legislative apportionment. In spite of the conflict of interest involved, legislators have hogged and abused the reapportionment every 10 years.

Both of these measures will be on the ballot because the Legislature has been unresponsive to public pressure to clean up its act. This also happened when the public was forced to initiate a statutory measure for medical marijuana. The measure was a mess that would never have occurred if the Legislature had been in tune with the people.

Of course, the Legislature hates these citizen petitions. Historically, they brought it on themselves.

In the last half of the 1800s, state legislatures became corrupt, wheeling and dealing with railroads and all other private interests seeking governmental favor. Around the turn of the Century, the decent people in the country decided to challenge the seedy activities of their elected assemblies.

In 1914, North Dakota adopted very complicated systems for initiating amendments and laws. Finding them unworkable, the systems were amended in 1918 to the simple form they are today.

North Dakota’s initiative systems are among the simplest and easiest when compared to most other states that provide for initiating constitutional amendments and statutes.

Keeping in mind that the initiative and referendum were adopted because legislatures were riddled with improprieties, we have to ask ourselves a serious question: Is the state legislature any more trustworthy in 2020 than it was in 1918.

Right now there are critics that would doubt it, pointing to the grip the oil industry has on regulatory bodies and the Legislature. Not only did the state cut oil taxes by $30 million, it also has given the industry breaks in flaring gas, cleaning up spills and scores of other little enactments.

In addition, the state has been shoveling money into research that the oil companies ought to be funding themselves.

The instability of the legislative mind pertaining to the Board of Higher Education is evidence that some important matters are not well considered before passage. In 2014, voters killed a legislative proposal for a board of three full-time commissioners and the 2019 Legislature came back with a proposal to double the size of the Board to 14.

In the last session, a measure restricting the state auditor from doing performance audits was passed and the seasoned floor leadership denied knowing anything about the proposition. The measure was so bad some legislators suggested calling a special session to change it.

It looks like the Legislature needs to prove itself before getting control of the citizen constitution amending process.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


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