LLOYD OMDAHL: National interests taking over state initiatives

When the initiated proposal for Marsy's Law--backed by California billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III--appeared in North Dakota, local commentators worried about out-of-state meddling in the state's initiative process. One of the opponents of Marsy...

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Lloyd Omdahl

When the initiated proposal for Marsy's Law-backed by California billionaire Henry T. Nicholas

III-appeared in North Dakota, local commentators worried about out-of-state meddling in the state's initiative process.

One of the opponents of Marsy's Law pinpointed the issue at a Bismarck press conference by suggesting that "voters shouldn't accept a measure pushed by a California businessman." Nicholas pledged at least $1 million to pass the measure on the November ballot.

The introduction of Marsy's Law for the South Dakota ballot was greeted in the same manner by the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader with screaming headlines: "The California billionaire bankrolling Marsy's Law."

North Dakotans have always been jealous about their opportunity to initiate and refer legislation for the voters to decide. Citizens have had to fend off encroachment on numerous occasions.


Historically, the Legislature has been the primary enemy of the initiative and referendum, proposing numerous constitutional amendments to increase the number of required signatures and passing laws to mute the effectiveness of the process.

In recent decades, national groups, corporations, trade organizations and ideologues have been exploiting state initiative and referendum processes all across the country to achieve their ideological and financial goals.

In the 2014 elections, we saw millions of Walmart and Walgreen's dollars in a campaign to change North Dakota's pharmacy ownership laws. Big dollars came into the state to support a legacy fund for wildlife, recreation and water projects

National organizations exploiting the initiative and referendum is not a new phenomenon. As long ago as the 1950s, the S&H Green Stamp company invested thousands in a campaign to trash a legislative proposal that would have required a $600 fee for each S&H location.

In 1960 and 1964, railroads spent heavily on initiated measures that would have prescribed crew levels and operating systems. It is very likely that out-of-state money was involved in the 1990s Sunday shopping measures.

The major tobacco companies have already pledged over a million dollars to fight the cigarette tax increase appearing in the November election.

Colorado became a battleground for Rhode Island and Nevada interests over a gambling measure. Pepsi and Monsanto have put money in Hawaii, Colorado and Oregon to fight the labelling of genetically modified food.

The Koch organization is spending big in South Dakota to stop an initiated measure that would require disclosure of their political donors.


All 25 states with the initiative and/or referendum have become playgrounds for out-of-state interests on all sorts of issues. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that $196 million was spent on statewide ballot issues in 2014.

Those of us who have fought off attacks on the initiative and referendum through the years must now reconnoiter. The worms are out of the can and there's no turning back. Both state and national constitutions protect the kind of free speech involved in issue campaigns.

A better informed, more discerning electorate was the dream of the advocates who promoted these tools of "direct democracy" at the turn into the Twentieth Century. Sometimes voters have seen through the election rhetoric with wisdom; on other occasions, they have been bamboozled by well-financed propaganda machines.

As of today, the best approach would be the one being offered voters in South Dakota-an initiated measure requiring full transparency and disclosure of all funding sources.

We can expect a ton of out-of-state tobacco, Henry Nicholas and marijuana money to be spent on North Dakota ballot measures in the next few weeks. We may not like nationalization of state processes, but we can't lose sight of the core issues raised by the measures relating to criminal justice, tobacco taxes and medical marijuana.

Omdahl is a retired professor of political science at UND and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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