North Dakota House considers another constitutional amendment hurdle as critic warns of 'serious erosion' of rights

Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, testifies in favor of his proposal raising the threshold for approving constitutional amendments Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, testifies in favor of his proposal raising the threshold for approving constitutional amendments Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers considered another proposal to add hurdles to the process allowing citizens to amend the state constitution Wednesday, Feb. 27.

House Concurrent Resolution 3010 would raise the threshold for passing initiated constitutional amendments at the ballot box to 60 percent instead of a majority. As a proposed constitutional amendment itself, the resolution would seek voter approval in 2020.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing came more than a week after the Senate approved another resolution giving the Legislature input on constitutional amendments proposed by citizens.

Grand Forks Republican Rep. Steve Vetter, the primary sponsor of the House resolution, said his proposal is meant to “strengthen” the constitution, which he said shouldn’t be considered a “living document” subject to constant revisions.

“(Sixty percent) is attainable for something that’s popular enough that will pass, but yet it’s not going to be something that just squeaks in there,” he said.

The committee did not take immediate action on Vetter's proposal Wednesday.

The resolution, which is cosponsored by eight other Republican lawmakers, was introduced after voters considered ballot questions in recent years that were unpopular with the Republican-controlled Legislature. Had it been in place during the 2018 election, a measure adding new ethics rules to the state constitution wouldn’t have passed because it was approved by only 54 percent of voters.

The resolution is aimed only at initiated constitutional measures and would not alter existing language requiring a majority vote of the electorate to approve amendments proposed by the Legislature.

The Senate proposal, which the House will consider in the coming weeks, would send voter-approved constitutional changes to the Legislature. If lawmakers approve the initiated measure, it would be enacted. But voters would ultimately have the chance to override the Legislature if lawmakers reject the proposal.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, the chief backer of that resolution, has repeatedly warned that the state government's organizing document is vulnerable to well-financed, out-of-state interests that could bankroll a campaign.

“I acknowledge that it will be harder, but constitutional amendments should be harder,” he said Wednesday. “But they also should have democratic scrutiny.”

Hogue’s proposal faced fierce criticism during a committee hearing early in the session, as opponents railed against it as an effort to undermine the will of voters. The Senate later overturned the committee’s unanimous recommendation against the resolution.

A Senate committee will consider yet another resolution Thursday cosponsored by Republican majority leaders that, like Vetter's proposal, would require 60 percent of voters to approve a constitutional amendment, whether it's proposed by citizens or the Legislature.

But Senate Concurrent Resolution 4015 would also double the number of signatures required to put the question on the ballot and impose new mandates that signatures come from each of the state's 53 counties.

North Dakota is among more than a dozen states with a direct initiative process for amending its constitution, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers voted in 2017 to create a special commission to study and propose changes to the process of changing policy by petition.

Ellen Chaffee, a member of that commission who helped spearhead the ethics measure last year, dismissed any suggestions that it takes little effort to mount a successful ballot measure campaign. She predicted the lawmakers' ideas would face "significant pushback" if they make it to the ballot box.

"It would be easy to help people understand that this is a serious erosion of the rights that people have now for accountability with legislators and the executive branch," Chaffee said.