Omdahl: Big money dominates ballot measures
In its second meeting of the legislative interim, the Initiated and Referred Measures Study Commission puzzled over big money involved in measures on the North Dakota ballot. The first memorable campaign in which out-of-state money poured into the state was in the general election of 1956, when trading stamps were in their glory.
To throttle their use, the Legislature passed a law requiring a $6,000 annual fee for each trading stamp redemption center. The law was referred and soundly defeated by the infusion out-of-state trading stamp money.
In very few cases since 1956 did we see repeats of big money in measure campaigns until the last decade, when a whole flurry of ballot measures attracted big bucks.
Committee members cited the $2.8 million spent by a single California benefactor to pass Marsy's Law, a constitutional amendment that is still a puzzle to the criminal justice system. In the last decade, we also have Walmart's multi-million-dollar attempt to repeal the pharmacy law that protects local pharmacies. The wildlife and parks measure also attracted significant funds. On the issue of a big hike on tobacco, the tobacco industry spent $13.85 per vote to nine cents spent by supporters of the measure. Tobacco advertising distracted voters from the 1,000 North Dakotans who die each year from tobacco use by pointing out that there was no specific plan for spending the revenue.
This brings us to a point discussed in the recent Commission meeting. State Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, challenged voters to "pay attention to who's influencing any election, whether it's in-state or out-of-state money."
In the case of the tobacco tax hike, it is obvious that big money was able to confuse the minds of North Dakotans by diverting attention. Apparently, anyone with enough money can buy the public mind.
According to Ballotpedia, out of 104 ballot measures in the country in 2016, three-fourths were won by groups with the most money. That has always been the case and will continue to be.
As the economic, social and political issues become more and more national, states will see many more big money campaigns on ballot measures.
In that regard, advertising executive Pat Finken of the Odney Agency told the commission that "this idea that ... only North Dakotans can do this really doesn't deal with the fact that we're part of a nation, not just a state."
Since funding campaigns is protected as free speech by the First Amendment, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, was right when he told the commission that limiting spending would not survive a court challenge.
Oban suggested that the state make sure that everything is "disclosed and transparent." Considering the constitutional restraints, that is about the only defense the state has available. With that as the only route, reporting regulations could be more demanding. First of all, the state could require publication of every name hidden in front organizations. Second, measure contenders should be required to report the source of the money right down to the original contributors by name.
Almost all of the measure wars are conducted under the guise of some "citizens" group until reporting time, when a few more details must be furnished to the secretary of state. Reporting should be required by Internet every day of the campaign.
More frequent reporting by original contributors could give citizens a timely running account of who is spending the big money in North Dakota. Right now reporting lags behind the spending so that citizens are unaware of the big donors until the war is over.
Fine tuning the reporting system looks like the only hope and that one is a finger in the dike at best.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND. His column appears each Monday in the Herald.