JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Let’s Not Let Bad Politics Ruin Our Chance To Honor Theodore Roosevelt

Senate Bill 2001, passed by the 2019 North Dakota Legislature, is the appropriations bill for the North Dakota governor’s office. It’s eight sections long and contains an appropriation of about $4.5 million to pay the governor and lieutenant governor and their staff, their travel expenses and their office supplies. It has a line item with the governor’s salary and a section giving the lieutenant governor a pay raise. All those numbers are in Sections 1 through 4 and Section 6 of the bill.

But the bill has three more Sections, 5, 7 and 8. Those three deal with the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, the last-minute deal in the session to provide $50 million for operating funds for the library, to be built in Medora, if the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation raises $100 million to build it.

You probably read in the paper last week that opponents are planning a referral of the state’s funding for the library. They’ve submitted a draft petition for Secretary of State Al Jaeger to approve, and then they intend to get about 13,000 signatures on that petition to place a measure on the ballot that they say will ask the state’s voters to overturn the Legislature’s actions and deny the $50 million in state funds for the library.

Article 3, Section 5 of the North Dakota Constitution says they have 90 days from the day the governor signed the bill to gather those signatures and submit them to Jaeger to get the measure on the ballot next year. Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill April 26, so they have until July 25 to gather the 13,000 signatures. That’s less than 60 days from right now.

Making it even harder, there’s a goofy state law (NDCC Section 16.1-01-09) that says once the secretary of state receives the group’s draft petition, he has to write a “petition title,” which is a “short and concise statement that fairly represents the measure.” Then he has to submit that statement to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for “approval or disapproval.”  Then, the law says, “The secretary of state and the attorney general shall complete the review of a petition in not less than five, nor more than seven, business days, excluding Saturdays.”

WTF? Not less than five? What’s up with that?

So, as Jaeger says in a letter he wrote to the sponsors Friday, he and Stenehjem will complete that review between June 3 and June 5 and then will notify the sponsors in writing. So let’s say they are really efficient and get it done in five days, on June 3, and send a letter to the sponsors, which should arrive in their mail box June 4.

Then the sponsors have to get their petitions printed and distributed to volunteers (or paid signature gatherers) to begin getting signatures. That might take a week.

So that means they will have about six weeks to gather 13,000 signatures. They’re going to have to do some scurrying.

By the way, you could have read about this proposed referral no matter where you live because thanks to The Associated Press, it’s been in pretty much every major paper in the United States (for example, The Houston Chronicle, The Macon Telegraph, The Fresno Bee, The Arizona Daily Star, The Miami Herald The San Antonio Express-News, and hundreds of others — it’s a national embarrassment for North Dakota) since the news broke last week.

The story in the papers said the people behind the referral, a bunch of conservatives whose names are often associated with unsuccessful ballot measures and runs for public office — Kuntz, Muecke, Coachman, Toman, Shaw, Hale, Tuttle — want to “stop funding for the presidential library,” and that’s what they think they are doing. Except maybe they aren’t. Stay with me here because this gets a little confusing. I hope I’ve got it right.

The first problem this group has is that the three sections of SB 2001 dealing with the library contained an emergency clause, which means they became state law the minute the governor signed the bill. Normally, when a bill is referred, as soon as the petitions containing the required number of valid signatures are filed with the secretary of state, the law passed by the Legislature, in this case establishment of an endowment fund for operations of the library, would be suspended until voters decide whether to approve the Legislature’s actions.

But this bill had an emergency clause, so it is already state law, which means a referral won’t suspend it. Article 3, Section 5 of the North Dakota Constitution says, “The submission of a petition shall suspend the operation of any measure enacted by the legislative assembly except emergency measures …” (emphasis added)

I’m not sure what will happen if they get the signatures, get it on the ballot and the voters vote against the Library funding in 2020. By that time, the library could already be under construction. That will be for lawyers and courts to decide.

I’m also not sure if the petitioners realized that the bill had an emergency clause, and what the state Constitution says about that, when they submitted their documents to Jaeger. I’m eager to hear what they have to say when they are asked about it.

But that’s not their biggest problem, from what I can tell. Their biggest problem is that they only are referring Section 5, which is the section that sets up the mechanism for creating an endowment fund from which the presidential library can draw funds to operate the library. The section reads, in part, “There is created in the state treasury the Theodore Roosevelt presidential library and museum endowment fund. The governor may provide for the fund to be invested under the supervision of the board of university and school lands. The interest and earnings of the fund are appropriated to the governor on a continuing basis to pay interest expenses on a loan from the Bank of North Dakota and to provide grants pursuant to this section. The governor may provide grants to a private entity …”

It goes on to lay out certain conditions the “private entity” (in this case the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation) must meet in order to qualify for the grants, mostly that they have to provide a $100 million match to the state’s $50 million. You can read the whole bill here if you want to.

But the actual funding for the endowment fund comes from sections 7 and 8. Section 7 tells the director of the Office of Management and Budget to transfer $15 million from the state’s general fund to the library endowment fund before June 30 of this year. I am told OMB Director Joe Morissette has already done that.

Section 8 tells the governor he can borrow $35 million from the Bank of North Dakota to put in the same fund, bringing that fund to $50 million.

Neither of these sections is being referred. The DRAFT REFERENDUM PETITION submitted by the committee says, “We, the undersigned, being qualified electors request Senate Bill 2001, Section 5 passed by the 66th Legislative Assembly be placed on the ballot as provided by law.” And then it lists the text of Section 5.

So it appears to me this group that says they are referring the library funding aren’t actually referring the library funding. They’re just suggesting to the state’s voters that they should vote against setting up a bank account in which some money is supposed to be placed. The actual money to go into that account — the appropriation — isn’t affected by their referral.

And actually because of the emergency clause, the bank account isn’t affected either. But if something bad happens, like the voters in 2020 agreeing with the referral committee, which I think is unlikely, the next legislative session is going to have to do a little cleanup to allow the money, which will be sitting in the bank, to get spent. They should be able to figure out a way to do that.

So, if I was governor, here’s what I think I’d do. Today or tomorrow.

I’d call State Land Commissioner Jodi Smith and tell her to go see State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt and set up that endowment fund this week. Then I’d call OMB Director Morrisette and make sure he’s sent a $15 million check over to Smith to put in the fund. And then I’d go see Bank of North Dakota President Eric Hardmeyer and sign my name on that $35 million loan this week and get the money into that endowment fund.

The emergency clause on Sections 5, 7 and 8 in SB 2001 allows all of that to happen. The Legislature, by putting that emergency clause on the bill, intended for this to happen RIGHT NOW and for that library to get built without any further delay.

This whole referral thing makes me sad. What it is really doing is creating controversy around the one chance we have to do something REALLY BIG in North Dakota. That controversy might be enough to scare away the philanthropists, the potential donors who we need, to pay for construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, a library for which the state should then be more than willing to pick up the operating costs.

Our state is rich, and our Legislature, which represents us, agreed, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, to use some of that wealth to do this. Our governor signed it into law. I think, when or if the people of our state vote on it, we will give it the same overwhelming support.

To be fair, when the Library Foundation and the governor went after this state funding, it knew it was entering the political arena and that arena can be fraught with danger. But this bunch of crazies behind the referral truly is “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

The result of their apparent ineptitude might only be to stir up enough controversy to scare this project away from North Dakota. We only get one shot at this. I just hope this doesn’t ruin it.

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