LINCOLN, Nebraska — Supporters of a higher minimum wage claimed victory last week in their effort to place the issue on the November ballot, but getting it there wasn't easy.
The campaign to raise Nebraska's minimum wage to $9 by 2016 required at least 300 volunteers, labor unions, statewide advocacy groups and the guidance of two experienced state senators — including one who worked on a ballot campaign before. The group Nebraskans for Better Wages raised more than $721,000, with nearly half coming from Omaha philanthropist and prominent Democratic donor Richard Holland.
The seven-week push to qualify for the ballot illustrates what critics describe as unreasonably steep hurdles for citizens — rules that are now being challenged in federal court. Advocates who want to ease the requirements argue it's virtually impossible to place an issue on the ballot without support from wealthy donors.
"It's stacked against the folks who don't have a lot of money," said Kent Bernbeck, an Omaha businessman who has attempted several local and statewide petition drives and sued the Nebraska secretary of state's office last year over the requirements. "If Nebraskans want to accept the fact that that there will no longer be grass-roots issues making the ballot ... They're shallow when it comes to understanding this important right."
His lawsuit alleges the requirements dramatically increase the cost of statewide petition drives and violate his rights to free speech and to petition the government. The secretary of state's office has defended the state's requirements as constitutional, and argued that Bernbeck is trying to re-litigate the case after parts of a previous lawsuit failed. The case is working its way through the courts.
Nebraska's constitution requires petition circulators to gather signatures from 7 percent of all registered voters if they want to change a state law and 10 percent if they want to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. They're required to visit at least 38 of Nebraska's 93 counties and collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in each.
Because the number of registered voters changes regularly, petition organizers never know the exact number of signatures needed until they're submitted. The threshold is based on the number of voter registrations reported to the secretary of state's office on the day the signatures are due, according to Laura Strimple, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale.
Organizers of the minimum-wage petition drive assumed they would need about 81,000 signatures, and aimed to far exceed that number; they submitted nearly 135,000 signatures on Thursday for verification. If it qualifies, the proposal will be the first petition initiative to make the ballot since 2008.
Sen. John Murante of Gretna proposed a constitutional amendment this year to lower the signature threshold to 3 percent of registered voters for changing state law and 5 percent for constitutional amendments, but it died in committee.
Murante said petitioning rights are especially important for Nebraska because of the state's one-house Legislature, which has no other chamber to check its power.
"The people are the second house," Murante said. "Right now, we have a petitioning process which is completely inaccessible to the average Nebraskan."
At the same time, petition requirements that are too lax could lead to a surge in citizen-led ballot measures and potentially misleading tactics by circulators, said Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities.
Rex, who testified against Murante's proposal in February, said lawmakers have worked to strike a balance between direct democracy and protecting the public from those who abuse the system. She pointed to a 2006 ballot proposal to impose a cap on state spending, for which signature-gathering efforts included inaccurate promises that the measure would lower property taxes.
Bernbeck's lawsuit also takes issue with the geographic distribution requirement, which he says effectively makes rural votes more valuable than urban votes, since nearly half of the state's population lives in five counties in the Omaha area. He argues that a petition circulator could gather two to three times as many signatures as needed in those counties alone, but would still have to travel to other counties for the measure to qualify for the ballot.
State Sen. Danielle Conrad, who led the minimum wage ballot initiative with state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist and quit her job to work full-time on the campaign, believes the current requirements are appropriate because they help ensure the support is statewide and genuine.
"There are high hurdles to clear — no question about it," said Conrad, who also worked on a campaign to defeat a 2008 ballot measure that banned government from using racial preferences in hiring. "But I do think that is important so that Nebraskans must organize to be successful."