Editorial: North Dakota voters showed common sense

  • Updated: June 13, 2012 - 8:38 PM

They rightly reject Fighting Sioux, tax ban and religion measure.

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The High Plains of North Dakota.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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Pragmatism prevailed on the North Dakota prairie this week as voters said "Enough!" to the timeworn debate over the state's divisive "Fighting Sioux" university nickname. Those who went to the primary polls also rejected two ill-advised ballot measures -- one that would have abolished state property taxes, and another that could have allowed one person's religious beliefs to infringe on others' rights.

It's no exaggeration to say that there was a collective sigh of relief around the region that the debate over the University of North Dakota's nickname may finally come to a close. On Tuesday, about 68 percent of North Dakotans voted to retire the name and associated Indian warrior logo, according to the Associated Press. The vote sends the issue to the state's Board of Higher Education, which is expected to heed voters' wishes.

Misguided Fighting Sioux loyalists have vowed to fight on with another ballot measure this fall. That's a mistake. The nickname controversy has simmered for decades and came to a boil in 2005, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) moved to ban Native American sports team monikers it deemed offensive.

Since then, North Dakotans have endured an emotional seven-year debate over a nickname with a proud history, but one that has become a relic of a less enlightened era. North Dakotans have now spoken. Voters' overwhelming support for retiring the name signals strongly that it's time to move on.

The protracted fight had begun to overshadow the athletic and academic reputation of North Dakota's flagship university. Moreover, the cause to keep it is unwinnable.

The NCAA is not going to back down. As Star Tribune sports columnist Rachel Blount noted earlier this year: "Membership in that organization is not a right, and it is not a democracy. If UND wants to sponsor Division I sports, it has to play by the NCAA's rules.''

It's also worth noting that it is student-athletes -- not nickname loyalists -- who would pay the price if the name is retained. Other schools have already vowed not to compete against UND teams because of the nickname. That, plus NCAA restrictions on hosting post-season competition may force teams to play without the home-field advantage at crucial times. That's a key reason many UND coaches pushed to end the nickname's use.

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North Dakotans also had their state's best interests in mind when they sensibly voted down two other ballot measures.

They displayed fiscal maturity in overwhelmingly rejecting the temptation to eliminate the property tax. Even in oil-rich North Dakota -- the one state that the Great Recession spared -- it isn't wise to deprive government of any of the tools it needs to keep services stable and tax burdens fairly and broadly shared.

Doing away with local property taxes would have denied government more than $800 million per year, creating a 28 percent hole in total state and local government revenues. Refilling that hole likely would have required more state-imposed sales and/or income taxes, and with more state funding inevitably would come more state control of local spending.

North Dakotans also voted down the misleadingly named "Religious Freedom Restoration" measure. This confusingly written initiative, if passed, would have allowed a person's religious beliefs to challenge or trump labor laws, antidiscrimination laws or zoning laws, among others.

Minnesota's northwest neighbor drew national media attention because of its unusual ballot measures. The common sense that North Dakotans displayed at the polls this week deserves national attention -- and praise -- as well.

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  • FIGHTIN' FLICKERTAILS?

    University of North Dakota fans will have to wait a few years for a new nickname. School officials said this week that state law imposes a "cooling down" period, meaning no new nickname until 2015.

    UND already has switched nicknames. Before the "Sioux" name was adopted in the 1930s, UND was the home of the "Flickertails," a name for ground squirrels common in the state. Asked if the school would reconsider that nickname, UND spokesman Peter Johnson chuckled and said he "wouldn't bet on this one."

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