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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published July 24 2013

Petition aims to protect citizen-initiated measures in ND

BISMARCK - A Bismarck man wants to amend the state constitution so lawmakers can’t infringe on the ability of North Dakotans to petition to put an issue up for a statewide vote.

Dustin Gawrylow, assistant publisher of the Bismarck-based Great Plains Examiner, is working on an initiated measure that would keep the Legislature from altering the initiated measure process, as it is attempting to do.

“The initiated measure process should only be changed through the initiated measure process,” he said, arguing that only North Dakota citizens should be able to change it.

If his petition drive is successful, it will place a constitutional amendment on the 2014 statewide ballot.

Gawrylow said his measure is in response to the two measures state lawmakers put on the 2014 primary and general election ballots. Those measures, if passed, will make it more difficult to collect signatures and undermine citizens’ ability to affect state policy, he said.

Gawrylow, 30, kicked off his campaign last week by sending a letter to 800 North Dakotans asking if they will sponsor the petition and support the measure.

Once the measure has 25 sponsors, Gawrylow will submit his request for a petition to the secretary of state, who will formalize a petition title and eventually approve it for circulation.

He said he hopes to submit a request in mid-August and put the issue on the June primary election ballot. To do so, he will have to collect 26,904 signatures by March 12.

Gawrylow said his ballot measure and sponsoring committee will publicly oppose the two measures the Legislature referred to the ballots.

The first measure up for a vote in June is asking voters to change the deadline for submitting petition signatures. Currently, a sponsoring committee must submit its petitions 90 days before the election in which the measure will be put to a vote. The measure would move that date to 120 days before the election.

Gawrylow said that’s a major problem, because signature gatherers wouldn’t be able to use the North Dakota State Fair to collect signatures to put a measure on the November ballot. He says the fair in Minot is where committees have obtained as much as 25 percent of their signatures.

“Taking away that ability every year makes it more difficult for citizens to respond to what’s going on in the public policy realm,” he said.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said the change may be an issue for petitions filed in late summer, but Silrum said a petition can be filed at any time and signatures gathered for up to a year.

The secretary of state’s office favors the extension to avoid potential problems with the ballot.

Currently, a petition must be submitted 90 days before the election, and state law gives the secretary of state’s office 35 days to review it, which is 55 days before the election and the same day the ballot must be finalized.

If the secretary of state’s office rejects the petition over insufficient or fraudulent signatures, the committee can appeal to the state Supreme Court. Under the constitution, if the Supreme Court has not ruled when the ballot is being prepared, the measure goes on the ballot and can’t be taken off, even if the Supreme Court agrees with rejecting the petition.

That could lead to a measure being on the ballot that doesn’t belong.

“Just like people have the right to initiate a law, people have the right to know the law was initiated properly,” Silrum said.

Under the measure referred by the Legislature, challenges to a secretary of state’s decision must come 75 days before the election, giving the Supreme Court more time for review.

“It’s a process that really corrects an oversight in the constitution,” he said. “We tried to put some timelines on it that would actually make sense.”

The second measure proposed by the Legislature would prohibit citizen-initiated measures that force lawmakers to spend state money for a specific purpose.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, proposed the resolution to provide “good business management of the state’s resources.”

“People have every opportunity to bring their measures forward,” he said. “But when they have a large fiscal effect on the treasury, that should be in someway carefully handled.”

For instance, he said had the 2012 measure to abolish property taxes passed, the state would have been required to cover about $800 million in property taxes.

“We would have been in special session the next day to raise people's taxes,” he said.

Gawrylow calls the measure “shady.”

“The public should be able to set the terms for the Legislature to operate with,” he said.