Deadline Looms for Proposed Initiative Referenda

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The deadline is Friday for organizers to turn in signatures for proposed ballot initiatives that aim to repeal new state laws restricting medical marijuana and expanding eminent domain powers.

Rose Habib, coordinator for a proposed initiative referendum sponsored by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, said Thursday that the group has met the requirements required to put the question to voters in the 2012 general election. That meant gathering more than 24,337 voter signatures from at least 34 legislative districts.

“I’m confident that we’ve qualified for the ballot, but you never know until the secretary of state says we have,” Habib said.

The advocacy group wants to repeal the medical marijuana law that bans for-profit marijuana operations and makes it more difficult to qualify to be a registered user. Legislators who passed the restrictive law this spring said the 2004 voter-approved initiative that legalized medical marijuana was too permissive and resulted in an out-of-control industry.

The advocacy group had sought to suspend the new law until the 2012 election, but that would have required the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters from 51 legislative districts, a bar that proved to be too high.

“I don’t think we really had the time or the resources to accomplish that,” Habib said.

A Helena judge has blocked some parts of the new law while he considers a legal challenge also brought by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association.

The second proposed initiative appears likely to fall short of the signatures needed for placement on the 2012 ballot. That measure seeks to repeal a new law that grants utilities the power of eminent domain over private landowners, a power normally reserved for governments.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office said that as of Tuesday, only 1,614 signatures for the eminent domain issue had been tabulated by the state. Rachel Roberts, coordinator for Real Montanans for Fair Land Use, said she did not know how many signatures the group would have by Friday’s deadline, but acknowledged that the organizers are not where they would like to be.

The group worked hard in a limited amount of time to educate people about a little-known issue, she said. Organizers can try to place the initiative in a future election, though it has not been decided whether the group will try it again.

“We don’t feel like it will be a failure if we don’t meet our 24,000 signatures,” she said. “We were given what we were given, and we worked as best we could within that.”

The bill that Roberts wants to roll back was pushed through the Legislature with the backing of businesses looking to jump-start two major electricity transmission projects stalled by routing disputes with landowners: the Montana-Alberta Tie Line in the northern part of the state and Mountain States Transmission Intertie in the southwest.

Both initiative groups must turn in their signatures by Friday to county election administrators. The counties will have a month to file their certified results to the secretary of state, who then certifies the total to determine whether the measures qualify for the ballot.

Legislative referenda such as the medical marijuana and eminent domain proposals are rare in Montana, having been attempted only three times since 1993.

Organizers of proposed statutory and constitutional initiatives for the 2012 ballot have until June 22 to gather signatures.

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