Paid petition circulators drove some ND measures

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — In their efforts to get on the November ballot, those shepherding some of North Dakota's new crop of voter initiatives relied on paid petition carriers, most notably a proposal to reserve a share of the state's oil tax revenue for wildlife, parks and wetlands projects.

Supporters of the conservation initiative paid an Iowa consulting firm $145,000 to run their signature-gathering effort. Advocates of a medical marijuana initiative paid $45,000 to hire workers to solicit petition signatures.

North Dakota initiative and referendum campaigns have traditionally relied on volunteers, and state law bars linking payments to circulators to the number of signatures they gather. But the use of paid circulators has risen in recent years, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said.

"I was a little surprised" at the money spent to gather signatures for the conservation fund, Jaeger said Tuesday. The move, he said, "hasn't been a common practice."

The proposed conservation fund, which would put an appointed board in charge of a fund that could collect $80 million to $100 million annually in oil taxes, is backed by a number of environmental and conservation groups. The initiative's chairman, Stephen Adair, is director of the Bismarck regional office of Ducks Unlimited, a national conservation group. The campaign's treasurer is a Ducks Unlimited administrator.

A coalition of groups is being assembled to fight the proposal, including the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and organizations that represent farming and ranching interests.

Andy Peterson, president of the Chamber of Commerce, argues the initiative would provide money for projects with no independent oversight, and would take funding from education, human services, flood protection and road construction.

Jon Godfread, chamber vice president, said Tuesday he expects backers of the conservation measure to spend as much as $2 million.

The $145,000 expenditure "was an eye-opening thing for us," but made sense given the amount of money at stake, Godfread said.

"This is $2 million (in campaign spending) to get a billion" in oil tax revenues over several years, he said. "If you just look at the numbers, that's a pretty good return on investment."

Although a $2 million initiative campaign would likely set a North Dakota record, the sum is unimpressive when compared to struggles over ballot measures in some of the 23 other states that allow citizen initiatives. In Washington state, more than $61 million was spent on initiative campaigns two years ago, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

The roster of Washington initiatives in 2010 included proposals to raise state income taxes on higher-earning couples, eliminate a state sales tax on candy and bottled water, allow private insurance companies to offer workers' compensation coverage and abolish a state monopoly on liquor distribution.

In California's citizen initiative campaigns from 1976 to 2004, an average of $3.6 million was spent supporting 137 initiatives, and $2.4 million was spent contesting them, Duke Law School professor John de Figueiredo said in a 2010 paper.

Dave Schwartz, campaign director for the pro-medical marijuana group North Dakotans for Compassionate Care, said as many as 30 petition carriers were hired to get the needed signatures. The campaign turned in petitions with about 20,000 names Monday, well above the minimum of 13,452 needed.

Schwartz said Tuesday the paid circulators were necessary because the campaign had less than three months to reach its signature goal. They were paid between $10 and $15 hourly, he said.

"We were under a tight deadline and we had to get the numbers in," Schwartz said. "We would have liked to have had more time, but that was our own issue."