North Dakota voters will have more than state and federal races on their plates to deal with when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.
A total of five measures are expected to appear on the ballot. Two of the measures are constitutional measures. One would create a fund for conservation projects while the other would guarantee farmers’ and ranchers’ right to farm using modern methods.
The other three are statutory measures. One of the initiatives would legalize and regulate marijuana for medicinal purposes, making North Dakota the 18th state to do so. Voters also may decide on a statewide smoking ban and whether or not they’re in favor of strengthening the state’s animal cruelty laws.
The filing deadline for the November election was Aug. 8. Upon receiving petitions, the secretary of state’s office has 35 days to review signatures. Once it is verified that enough valid signatures have been gathered, the measure is given a numbered place on the ballot. A constitutional measure requires 26,904 valid signatures to be placed on the ballot, while statutory measures and referral petitions require at least 13,452 signatures. As of Friday, signatures hadn’t been verified on any of the five measures.
North Dakotans for Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage are working to establish a “clean water, lands and outdoor heritage fund” for statewide conservation projects. The measure would require 5 percent of the state’s oil tax revenue be allocated for conservation. Projections from the state budget office put the total revenue at more than $80 million annually.
Any government subdivision, Indian tribe, nonprofit organization or conservation group would be able to apply. Funds could be used for projects including developing wildlife habitats, developing parks, restoration of wetlands and grasslands and conservation incentives for farmers.
The People First of North Dakota Coalition is opposing the measure. Group members have labeled it as “a money grab” by environmentalist groups. Opponents also say the nine-person board created by the measure to oversee the fund would have no accountability to the state or taxpayers.
Keith Trego, a member of the measure’s sponsoring committee, said funding for conservation is essential as the state faces unprecedented population growth and oil development.
“We’ve had the benefit of wide open spaces and low population density, but times are changing,” Trego said. “It’s time to stand up and make an investment in something that’s important to our way of life.”
The nine-member board to oversee the fund would be appointed by the governor, legislative leadership and the North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Grant applications would have to be considered within one year of the measure’s approval. Grants would be considered at least annually after that.
Trego said it’s important to identify where the money would come from. Trego said the state has structured oil tax collections so that set amounts are allocated into a number of funds. These include the Legacy Fund, Property Tax Relief Sustainability Fund and the Strategic Investments and Improvements Fund.
“Our 5 percent comes out of the state’s share ... of the General Fund after all the other needs are met,” Trego said.
Trego said what is being proposed is appropriate.
“Maybe it’s a lot of money, but it’s 5 percent, it’s a relatively small percentage,” Trego said.
Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, said there are a number of concerns with the proposed measure. An estimated $1 billion could be allocated by the board over the next decade, with approximately $179.1 million available during the next biennium.
“This essentially cuts out the Legislature and the people,” Godfread said.
North Dakota Chamber of Commerce President Andy Peterson, a spokesman for the People First of North Dakota Coalition, also expressed concerns.
“Conservation is important, but it’s not the only need the state has. What are you going to do with one billion dollars when you have all these other needs?” Peterson said.
Peterson said a better way to address conservation would be discuss an increase in state funding to agencies that handle conservation.
“I think it’s real arrogant for these outside groups to come in and say ‘we don’t have to participate in these kinds of discussions.’ This is a real sweet deal if you’re an environmentalist, and what they’re saying is ‘trust me,’” Peterson said.
Whether or not the penalty should be stiffened for committing acts of animal cruelty also could be on the ballot. North Dakotans Against Animal Cruelty is working to increase the penalty from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony.
It also would, at the discretion of the court, order a person convicted of animal cruelty to undergo mandatory psychological or psychiatric evaluation. Those found guilty also could be ordered not to own a pet for up to five years following conviction.
Karen Thunshelle, campaign manager for the group, said the measure would apply a stiffer punishment to those who commit acts against animals such as intentional beating, suffocation or poisoning.
“It’s basically to get more than a slap on the wrist for those who commit these kind of malicious acts on horses, dogs and cats,” Thunshelle said.
North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states in which animal cruelty carries a misdemeanor penalty.
Thunshelle said the issue has been before the Legislature in recent sessions but failed to pass. Thunshelle said after multiple sessions without change the group figured now was the time to act. She said the language includes exemptions for farming, hunting and fishing.
“We’ve made many exemptions ... I don’t know how much more considerate we can be,” Thunshelle said.
Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said a number of agriculture groups including her own have concerns with the measure.
“The language is written in a way that could be construed in a way that could be used against ag,” Ellingson said.
Ellingson said a number of agriculture groups have been working on potential changes to the animal cruelty statute to bring forward at the next legislative session.
“It (the measure) would actually impede our ability to make meaningful changes. If the ballot initiative passes (it) would require a higher threshold for changes,” Ellingson said. In North Dakota changes to a ballot measure can’t be made for seven years and would then require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature.
Ellingson said a group called North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care is working to improve the state’s animal cruelty law. She said the coalition, which includes the Stockmen’s Association, is calling for a comprehensive alternative that would include a variety of punishments covering all animals. Ellingson said North Dakotans Against Animal Cruelty’s primary focus is on penalizing offenders and narrowly focuses on cats, dogs and horses.
Another decision voters could face is a statewide public smoking ban.
The measure would ban smoking in all indoor public places, places of employment and public transportation such as taxis. It also would bar people from using electronic cigarettes in public places and require people smoking outdoors to be at least 20 feet from entrances and exits. Ten communities in the state already are smoke-free.
“We think that everyone has the right to breathe clean air,” said Chelsey Matter, chair of the group pushing the measure.
Matter is a West Fargo respiratory therapist. She said momentum for a smoke-free North Dakota has been building as more communities have gone smoke-free. Matter said the argument that establishments will lose business if they went smoke-free is losing steam.
“I don’t really buy it,” Matter said.
Matter said businesses that are smoke-free provide a cleaner atmosphere for both employees and customers. She said non-smokers in public places who are near those who do are impacted negatively.
“It’s not fair to those who want to work in that establishment or want to go to that establishment,” Matter said.
North Dakota Hospitality Association executive director Rudie Martinson said businesses shouldn’t be mandated to go smoke-free. He said businesses should have the choice to do so.
“We’ve maintained a pretty consistent position on this,” Martinson said.
Martinson said business owners make changes based on customer demand and in recent years the trend has been moving toward going smoke-free. If given the choice he said in time the market would “solve the issue itself.”
Martinson cited Bismarck as an example. Prior to Bismarck voters’ April 2011 approval of a city-wide smoking ban, he said a number of bars had already gone smoke-free. Martinson said a number of Mandan bars also have gone smoke-free even without a ban.
Martinson said the potential impact on businesses statewide is unclear.
“The impact it could have on Bismarck is quite different than in Fargo or Minot or Williston. You can argue and debate over the financial impact,” Martinson said.
He said the impact could depend on the percentage of patrons of a particular business who smoke. He said if the ban led to even one business to close, it’s still an impact. Martinson said if you’re that one business owner “and the government just regulated you out business ... it’s a huge deal to you.”
Whether or not medical marijuana should be legalized and regulated by the state also could be on the ballot. A group called North Dakotans for Compassionate Care is backing the effort to legalize the substance as a pain reliever.
If passed people with illnesses such as cancer and glaucoma would be able to use medical marijuana if recommended by a doctor. People using it for medical use would be able to grow a limited amount and possess up to 2 1/2 ounces.
One measure supporter is John Helgeland, a professor of history and religious studies at North Dakota State University. For cancer patients, he said smoking marijuana medicinally could be the answer to treating extreme pain that other medications have been unable to ease.
“It is able to help people who need some kind of respite from pain in their last days,” Helgeland said. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy and a tremendous amount of effort to get past that (pain).”
Helgeland said people with certain ailments should have the option to use it. Preventing abuse could be a challenge, but Helgeland said the question is whether those in need should be denied. Helgeland said the issue is one that requires voter education.
“I really object to people’s suggestion that it would be a return to the sixties or something like that,” Helgeland said.
Terry Dwelle, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Health, said regulatory responsibility would fall upon his department if the measure were to pass.
“We have been asked by the legislative committee to place a fiscal note on this. We are in the process of (doing) that. We have no numbers at this time,” Dwelle said.
Dwelle said it would be “several weeks” before the department would have a fiscal note ready to provide to legislators.
Dwelle said the medical community traditionally has relied on the established process by the Food and Drug Administration for approving products for medical use.
“There is a rigorous process the FDA goes through. At this point marijuana hasn’t been approved by the FDA for medicinal purposes,” Dwelle said.
A total of 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana initiatives, the first being California in 1996. Voters in neighboring Montana, approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2004. Connecticut, in May, became the most recent state to do so.
“The question is whether or not the states should take over the approval of medicinals,” Dwelle said.
Voters also may choose whether or not to add a new section to the state constitution affirming farmers’ and ranchers’ right to use modern methods of farming.
Jeffrey Missling, executive vice president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the idea is to preserve current farming methods from any future efforts to undermine them from outside interest groups. Missling said the Farm Bureau is concerned that groups such as The Humane Society or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals may eventually try to pass restrictive animal welfare laws in North Dakota.
“It’s a proactive thing in our state, but a reactive thing to what we’ve seen in other states. We’re trying to prevent them from coming into our state,” Missling said.
Missling pointed to efforts in other states, such as the Humane Society’s successful effort in California, to ban cramped cages for laying hens by 2015. He said such efforts drive up farmers’ operating costs and take a bigger bite out of customers’ wallets at grocery stores.
“This isn’t about big versus small farms. This isn’t about organic versus traditional farms. This is about all kinds of farming,” Missling said.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said the measure is very simple and straightforward.
“This is a lot of what we do already,” Goehring said, referring to the agency’s efforts in protecting and advancing modern practices in agriculture.
Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, said he could see the need for having farming rights specified in the Constitution.
“As things emerge in technology ... our farmers shouldn’t be hindered from using them,” Erbele said.
Erbele is chairman of the interim Agriculture Committee. He said the measure hasn’t come up during committee discussion. He said committee work on clarifying and improving language in statutes relating to farming is ongoing. Erbele referred to the farming methods measure as being one small part of the overall effort to maintain strong protections for farmers in the state.
The language of each ballot measure can be found in the Ballot Measures Portal of the Secretary of State’s website at www.nd.gov/sos.