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Opponent shifts focus to defeating Legislature's measure on approving constitutional initiatives

Opponent shifts focus to defeating Legislature's measure on approving constitutional initiatives

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North Dakota voters can expect debate later this year over involving the Legislature in approving constitutional initiatives, but they might not see two competing measures over the issue.

The 2019 Legislature sent a constitutional measure to 2020 voters that would send initiated constitutional measures approved by voters to the Legislature for majority approval. If lawmakers were to reject a measure, it would go back to voters and if passed again would be enacted.

North Dakota Watchdog Network Managing Director Dustin Gawrylow led a sponsoring committee that in April 2019 proposed a countering measure to tighten how the "powers reserved to the people" in North Dakota's constitution could be amended, leaving petitioning as the only avenue to amending the article. The Legislature's measure would amend that article, if passed.

Gawrylow told the Tribune on Friday he is "shifting my priorities" to defeating the Legislature's measure, calling his group's proposal "on life support."

Gathering signatures has been difficult, he said, and "at this point it's not likely" supporters will gather the 26,904 signatures by the June 8 deadline to submit to North Dakota's secretary of state.

"Right now there's not a path to success, and so I'm shifting gears and starting to do fundraising for the defensive action against the Legislature's measure in November," he said. 

North Dakota voters could see competing 2020 measures over initiatives

Gawrylow said he plans to meet with other groups who have previously utilized the initiative process and try to develop a coalition.

He called the Legislature's measure "a bridge too far."

"A lot of these issues do end up before the Legislature and they have an opportunity to talk about it and they don't," Gawrylow said. "And so ... the initiative process is designed to allow the public to act when the Legislature's unwilling to -- and so putting them into the process when they didn't want to be in the process in the first place is kind of an overreach, as far as I'm concerned."

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, proposed the legislation that produced the Legislature's measure. He said outside groups have figured out North Dakota's ballot measure process, and that the Legislature's measure is in line with the vision of the constitution's founders for "a collaborative process between the people and the Legislature."

"It is in my opinion an improvement on what the founders established because it still gives the people the last word," said Hogue, who is seeking a fourth term.

He sees a problem in recent years' constitutional initiatives being drafted "in the privacy and seclusion of a law office and immediately emailed to the secretary of state" without opportunity for public comments or hearings.

He cited the 2016 Marsy's Law measure for crime victim rights. Marsy's Law for North Dakota was solely funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas, who gave more than $2.3 million for the initiative that bears his murdered sister's name.

"When you have exactly 100% of the measure funded from people out of state who will not be subject to the law, I think that is the strongest indication you can have why maybe some reform is necessary," Hogue said.

He and Gawrylow each expect public debate around the Legislature's measure to begin in midsummer.

The measure is one of two so far approved for the 2020 ballot, the other being a proposal to expand the membership of North Dakota's State Board of Higher Education and increase term limits. Two other proposed measures would legalize marijuana, but they await approval for the ballot.

Voters will have their say on Nov. 3.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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