Legislators, Advocates Tussle Over Ballot Initiative Process

 

Not content to sit back and watch ordinary voters enact new laws through the ballot initiative process, some state lawmakers are trying to change the process itself.

They are doing so by making it a little tougher for proposed ballot measures to become law from requiring that all ballot measures include cost estimates to increasing the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

"You see a backlash against the initiative process because some legislators hate it and because others hate certain issues appearing on the ballot," said Dane Waters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute , a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks ballot initiatives.

Lawmakers say changes are needed to keep voters from passing bad policies.

"This legislation was intended to inform voters of the potential costs associated with a ballot initiative so that they will be able to cast an informed vote," Florida Sen. Ken Pruitt (R Port St. Lucie) said in a press release commending fellow lawmakers for passing legislation requiring ballot measures to include cost estimates.

But at least two groups pushing ballot measures were less than enamored with the new law. They filed suit, saying the cost-estimate requirement is unfair.

"The American principle of fair play is founded on the belief that you don't change the rules in the middle of the game. This law not only changes the rules, but creates a double standard that puts citizen initiatives at a disadvantage," said Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas (D) in announcing the lawsuit.

Penelas leads a group, Pre-K 4 All , trying to pass a ballot initiative that mandates universal pre-kindergarten by 2005. A panel of state economists working for the Legislature said the measure would cost the state between $425 million and $625 million a year.

Backers of another education measure , one that would cap the size of Florida public school classrooms, joined Penelas' group in the lawsuit. This measure would cost between $20 billion and $27.5 billion over the next eight years, according to the same panel of state economists.

Politics looms large in the Florida ballot dispute. The cost-requirement law was passed by a Republican-dominated Legislature and backed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The education initiatives are spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers.

Other potential changes to the initiative process include a proposal in Oklahoma that would increase the number of signatures required for ballot initiatives concerning animal welfare issues and two Montana proposals that would change the way signatures are gathered. Voters must approve these measures in November before they can become law.

The Montana measures would shift the balance of power from urban to rural areas by increasing the number of counties from which signatures must be gathered in order to qualify for the ballot. During the legislative session, these measures were backed by state Sen. Lorents Grosfield, a Republican rancher from Big Timber, Montana, a town of just over 1,500 people.

"What's happened is that the people in the east and people in rural areas throughout the state are not necessarily being included in setting the agenda," said Grosfield. "This would require that the setting of the agenda have a broader appeal."

The Oklahoma proposal would increase from eight percent to 15 percent the number of voters needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot. It would only apply to laws that deal with animal-related activities, such as fishing and hunting or sporting events involving animals.

Some initiative proponents say the 15 percent figure would be a tough standard to meet, especially in light of the short period of time Oklahoma allows for the gathering of signatures.

"It's a nearly impossibly high standard. Oklahoma is already one of the toughest qualification states in the nation," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States .

Pacelle says a Humane Society-backed ballot initiative that would ban cockfighting in Oklahoma is the target of the signature-increase proposal.

State Sen. Frank Shurden, an outspoken defender of cockfighting, pushed to have signature-increase proposal included on the ballot.

This kind of back and forth between legislators and issue advocates, ballot initiative foes and proponents, has been a staple of state politics since the early 1990's, said the Initiative and Referendum Institute's Waters.

"Since 1990, when term limits appeared on the ballot across the country, that's when the legislators started lashing out on the process more than they had previously," he said.

But legislators' lashing out often has more bark than bite.

"They have a lot of proposals. But I can't say it happens a lot that they get these proposals approved. They tend to run scared once the public finds out what they're doing," said Rick Arnold, CEO of National Voter Outreach , a signature-gathering company.

Decades of involvement with ballot initiatives have made Arnold cynical of legislators' attempts to change the process.

"Legislators usually identify this as reforming' the process," said Arnold. "What they mean is: We're going to make it a lot more difficult to get on the ballot.'"

In a curious twist, many reforms can actually result in more money for Arnold and other paid signature-gatherers, as tougher requirements increase the need for highly organized and thus very expensive initiative campaigns.

"Legislators complain about all the money that's in the process," said Waters. "Well, the amount of money that's in the process is caused by the overregulation of the process. The average citizen can't use the process. Only groups with access to money can use the initiative process."

 
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