By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent
Few people argue with the First Amendment right of free speech and allowing people to petition their government.
But, bring up the issue of paying petition-circulators by the signature in Nebraska and you’ll generate discussion. Such has been the case since at least 1986 when a couple lobbyists and two state senators were charged with violating the law by paying people to circulate petitions for a Constitutional change to permit a state-run lottery. A couple years later, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the payment of petition circulators “violates the first amendment and is for that reason void and of no force or effect.”
Several changes to petition laws ensued. Petition circulators had to disclose that they were being paid. The proposed ballot issue – the reason for the petition – had to be clearly stated on each page of the petition. About eight years ago, payment per signature instead of an hourly wage was banned. Proponents of the ban said paying per signature would increase the chances for fraud and aggressive behavior.
Proponents of the pay-per-signature idea have long argued it makes the petition process more affordable and creates an incentive for circulators to gather more signatures. In addition, the folks who pay the circulators per signature verify that each signature is valid – from an eligible registered voter thus providing an extra measure of validity before the petitions are filed with the Secretary of State.
Six other states, in addition to Nebraska, require circulators to disclose to potential signers whether they are paid or a volunteer. Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon and Wyoming all require that a prominent notice be placed on the petition form stating whether the circulator is paid or volunteer. In Missouri, the circulator must file an affidavit with the Missouri Secretary of State.
In Oregon, paid circulators must carry a registration form with them indicating that they have taken the state’s mandatory training program for paid circulators. Also, volunteer-circulated petitions and paid-circulator petitions are required to be printed on different colored paper.
The topic of pay-per-signature has surfaced again, in a bill (LB367) from North Platte Senator Mike Groene. The freshman lawmaker is no stranger to the petition process and has been involved in at least one lawsuit to change the situation. He says the seven-year-old prohibition violates free speech and destroys grassroots efforts to get issues on the ballot.
Groene’s bill is awaiting the second round of debate after advancing from its debut on a 38-0 vote. The measure was forwarded to the full Legislature on a 7-1 vote after a public hearing in the Government and Military Affairs Committee. Perennial petition supporter Kent Bernbeck and two others spoke in support of the measure during that hearing. The director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the head of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association spoke against the bill.
Committee Chairman Senator John Murante of Gretna has told his colleagues the right of citizens to petition their government is especially important in a state with a one-house Legislature where the people serve as the second house. He says the Legislature has added barriers to the petition process that have increased the price of mounting an initiative campaign. He also cautions that the state could be sued if the ban remains in place.
Federal courts have struck down bans in five states – Maine, Mississippi, Ohio, Washington and Idaho – for violating the First Amendment. There are 24 states, including Nebraska, that allow initiative petitions.
Groene used circulators paid by the signature in a 2006 petition drive to cap government spending. The measure made it on the ballot but was defeated by voters. Groene contends that people who opposed the measure then lobbied the Legislature to approve the ban on paid circulators.
Colleague Senator Paul Schumacher of Columbus says he thinks the petition process helps keep the Legislature in line.
I agree. It’s time to rise above the personalities and make the petition process better.