MINOT, N.D. — Legislating at the ballot box is an idiotic way to make public policy.
The populists tell us that the initiated measure process is a pure form of grassroots democracy in action, but in practice, that’s not what it is at all. It’s an easy avenue for political interests with deep pockets, like activist billionaires and Hollywood celebrities, to bypass the representatives of the people and enact their policies directly, relying on paid signature collectors and well-funded marketing campaigns to bamboozle the public just long enough for a proposed measure to get the votes.
Even in the rare instance when the process works as intended — when citizen activists, through a true volunteer effort, put a proposal on the ballot — the result is usually laws so poorly written as to be unworkable.
That was the case with the medicinal marijuana legalization, which, as voters passed it, didn’t even decriminalize medicinal marijuana. The Legislature was tasked with months of thankless work to turn that policy abomination into something workable, all while the medicinal marijuana proponents belly-ached about it.
Given all of this, you’d think our lawmakers, when they assemble in Bismarck, would try to avoid giving the professional activists and dim-bulb wannabes an opportunity.
Unfortunately, we’ve elected a lot of lawmakers who aren’t that bright.
To the state Senate, in particular.
In recent weeks the Senate has shot down bills that would have legalized sports betting, carved out an allowance in the state’s tobacco prohibition laws for cigar bars, decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and legalized recreational marijuana use.
At least two of these issues — marijuana legalization and sports betting — are almost certainly going to be the topic of initiated measure campaigns.
Why wouldn’t they be?
North Dakotans are already doing this stuff.
Marijuana is freely available in pretty much every community in the state, and you’d be hard-pressed to throw a rock at a sporting event in this state without hitting someone who has laid a bet on a game.
Eventually, we’re going to legalize these things. From a policy standpoint, there’s no good reason not to, and from a political point of view, it’s what most North Dakotans want.
The Legislature could have been responsive to these shifting attitudes and designed, though its thorough process, a workable path to legalization.
Instead, they punted, and what we’re likely to be stuck with is an inferior sort of policy created at the ballot box.
It’s true that elected representatives shouldn’t just stick their fingers in the wind and do whatever seems popular at a given moment. Sometimes good leadership means doing the unpopular thing, like a budget cut or a tax hike.
But then, there also comes the point at which elected representatives do actually need to represent the people who elected them.
The state Senate had those opportunities this session, and they failed.