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Group seeks to defeat new hurdle for ballot initiatives

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota’s voters in November will decide whether the Legislature should have the power to review and approve citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

An opposition group says it would effectively giving lawmakers veto power over what citizens want. The group, called ProtectND, gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday as part of a campaign to defeat the measure.

The Republican-led Legislature last year referred the constitutional amendment to the ballot, a move that was inspired in part by recent successful ballot measures funded by out-of-state interests.

The resolution allows lawmakers to take action on an initiated measure following voters’ approval. Any initiated measure would go back to voters for final approval if it fails to win lawmakers’ endorsement.

Dustin Gawrylow, who heads ProtectND group, said the measure usurps the will of the people and undermines the idea of direct democracy.

“The people set the framework for the politicians, not the other way around,” Gawrylow said at the small gathering at the Capitol.

“The issue is: Do voters need a babysitter?” Gawrylow said in an interview. “The people set the framework because that’s how a constitutional republic works.”

Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on ballots if they gather enough signatures from voters. North Dakota is among about two dozen states with some form of an initiative process.

Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue has led effort for additional oversight on constitutional amendments by the Legislature. Votes in both chambers on the resolution to place the measure on the ballot largely fell along party lines, with Democrats dissenting.

Hogue, a lawyer, now is leading a group called North Dakotans for the Protection of Our Constitution that supports the constitutional amendment. He said it’s made up of GOP lawmakers and others who fear North Dakota’s constitution increasingly is being influenced from afar.

“Our out-of-state friends are deciding how we should spend our money and how we should govern,” he said.

Hogue and others point to voters’ surprise approval of changing state law to allow the use of marijuana for medicine and another successful ballot measure funded almost solely by a California billionaire that amended the state’s constitution to protect the rights of crime victims.

Voters also approved a successful initiative effort two years ago amending the North Dakota Constitution to include a sweeping government ethics overhaul. Most Republicans opposed the measure, which was aimed at adding transparency and accountability to government.

Gawrylow also is managing director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network, which keeps tabs on how public money is spent. He said ProtectND has raised no money so far to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment.

“It’s going to be old fashion word-of-mouth,” Gawrylow said. “The key is to get people talking about it.”

Houge said his group hasn’t raised any money in support of the ballot measure.

“I don’t have any expectations we will,” he said.

GOP Gov. Doug Burgum has not taken a position on the issue, spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.