McFeely: Oil, coal groups sure don't want ND citizens to have a voice in government

Despite the Greater North Dakota Chamber being the single largest financial supporter of an attempt to make it harder to pass citizen-led initiated measures, oil and coal interests were right behind.

Former North Dakota Adj. General Mike Haugen speaks at a press conference in support of a proposed ballot measure on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in the North Dakota Capitol.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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FARGO — We've known for years the influence oil and coal companies have on North Dakota Republican politicians. We've seen it in campaign contributions. We've seen it in legislation passed. We've seen it in the shameless boot-licking of energy companies from right-leaning media figures.

And since Republicans have a monopoly on North Dakota government, and will for the foreseeable future, that means oil and coal companies are essentially running the state.

This, however, is not satisfactory to either Republicans or energy companies.

That's because there is still a way for citizens to have their say, to direct their state government if they feel it isn't being responsive enough. It is called the initiated measure process and it is ensconced in the state constitution.

The idea is simple enough. If citizens make a proposal and gather enough legitimate signatures, it gets on the ballot and the state's residents vote on that proposal. If it passes 50%, it becomes law.


Republicans, their sugar daddies and their media toadies hate it. They hate not having every last ounce of power. They hate that citizens, or activist groups, or — gasp — Democrats could have a say in running the state. They've tried multiple times to make it harder for citizen-led initiated measures to pass.

The latest was an attempt to raise the bar for amending the state constitution via initiated measure from a simple majority to 60% of the voters in an election. It was pushed by the state's establishment Republicans.

That venture ended in May after a year-long attempt at gathering signatures flopped. Secretary of State Al Jaeger nixed the proposed ballot measure because there were thousands of ineligible signatures.

I wrote about it, mockingly, when the measure was axed. With $180,000 from the Greater North Dakota Chamber as a head start, how could it not even make the fall ballot?

Here's what I didn't write about: Despite the chamber being the single largest financial supporter of an attempt to smother the voice of the state's citizens, oil and coal interests were right behind.

According to financial disclosures filed with the secretary of state's office, oil and coal were heavy contributors to the campaign.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council gave $50,000.

The CoalPAC gave $25,000.


The Lignite Energy Council gave $20,000.

The Montana-Dakota Utilities Resource Group gave $15,000.

North American Coal Corp. gave $10,000.

Oil and coal companies really, really, really wanted to make it harder for North Dakota citizens to have a say in their state government.

Why would that be?

Could be a couple of specific reasons, like the oil extraction tax that was implemented in 1980 via initiated measure or the more recent state ethics commission established the same way. These are things today's Republican super-majority legislators would've never considered, much less passed, once their oil and coal overlords whispered in their ears.

It's likely simpler than that.

Oil and coal companies want to make sure they are running North Dakota, assuring friendly and advantageous laws, and by contributing heavily to state Republicans they are buying legislators. Oil and coal can't buy citizens. Your average, everyday North Dakotan is a wildcard.


What if someone got an initiated measure on the ballot that was obviously common sense and a majority of North Dakota voters passed it, even if oil and coal companies opposed it? Can't have that.

And so they try to make the initiated measure process more difficult. Neat little trick, isn't it?

They failed this time. They'll try again.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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