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North Dakota initiated measure study commission holds first meeting

BISMARCK—A 19-member commission began examining North Dakota's process for initiating and referring ballot measures on Monday, July 31.

Lawmakers tasked the study commission, chaired by former state Supreme Court Justice William Neumann, with reviewing the process and cost of placing measures on the ballot, and whether any part of the state Constitution or statute should be changed, among other topics. Commission members heard a presentation Monday from Secretary of State Al Jaeger on how his office handles petitions.

The commission is required to report its findings and recommendations to legislative leaders by September 2018. It includes six lawmakers and seven people appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum, along with several representatives of interest groups such as the Greater North Dakota Chamber and North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Neumann suggested the commission use one of its meetings to gather public input. He acknowledged there are some fears that the commission's purpose "is to try to squelch public participation in the government of North Dakota." But, he added, "that is simply not true."

North Dakota voters have considered a raft of policy changes through the initiated and referred measure process over the years, including the legalization of medical marijuana in last year's election.

Twenty-four states have a process that allows residents to place statutory or constitutional measures on the ballot, according to a Legislative Council memo that cites the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Dakota has a "direct initiative" process, the memo said.

Fargo Republican Rep. Jim Kasper, a member of the commission, said he's worried about outside money influencing elections in North Dakota. The bill that created the commission required it to examine whether limits on out-of-state funding are necessary.

"Is it right that people with special agendas who live in California, New York or Florida can come in and buy a ballot measure and change how we live in the state of North Dakota?" Kasper asked.