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Defending the initiative process

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted May 17, 2004

Back in the 1990s the Free Congress Foundation actively promoted what was called "The Voters' Bill of Rights" that included the right for citizens to have initiative process. Right now, only 24 states have the initiative process. Citizens in other states including New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and my own adopted state of Virginia should view themselves as deprived of an essential right: to cast judgment directly on important policy proposals through their ballot. If more states had the initiative process, more citizens would have an important tool to make their voice count.

The citizens in states that have I&R need to defend their right to have it. Such was the case in Florida when Gov. Jeb Bush, state Senate President Jim King, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce banded together in a campaign aimed at curbing the citizens' right to vote directly on important policy questions.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce thought voters had too much power because the state's Constitution had been amended too often. Of the 95 amendments passed in recent years, legislators proposed the overwhelming majority, a minority were proposed through the initiative. As Paul Jacob, the former executive director of U.S. Term Limits and now head of an organization called Citizens in Charge, which seeks to expand the initiative process, asked in a commentary: "What is the harm? Did voters amend the constitution in 95 ways they now regret? Or just in ways the Chamber regrets?" Jacob admits that he does not like every measure passed by the voters in Florida, but he has no qualms about trusting the people to make important choices involving government policy.

Paul Jacob maintains that the opposition to the initiative process comes primarily from legislators and lobbyists and that most problems in Florida result from Florida voters only having the power to vote on constitutional amendments. When the idea was broached in hearings in this legislative session to provide voters with the power to vote on statutory initiatives, the proposal met with an ice-cold reception from legislators.

That is the case time and again. Too many state legislators are unwilling to share power with the people. Voters living in states without the initiative process are forced to take a back seat to powerful lobbies and PACs when it comes to making their voice heard and their vote count.

Not surprisingly, the trend of legislators trying to curb the ability of the people to use the initiative process is also underway in Arizona where they want to shorten the collection time for signatures, a move that discourages citizen-spearheaded grassroots initiative movements.

In Florida, the umbrella group representing the political establishment was called Vote Smart Florida and predictably it talked about waging an expensive campaign on behalf of three measures-as much as $4 million. One measure would have required supermajority approval for any amendment on the ballot. Another would have given power to the Florida Supreme Court to deny citizen initiatives from being placed on the ballot. The third measure, which has yet to receive a vote, moves the petition deadline up, increasing the difficulty and expense of the process.

The scuttling of the first two measures is testament to the power of citizen participation in defense of their right to vote on policy questions directly. Jacob, a citizen activist well skilled in grassroots politics from working on behalf of term limits and Citizens in Charge played a key role in defending the initiative process in Florida.

There was the usual coalition of interest groups willing to band together in defense of the initiative process including the Sierra Club, taxpayers' groups, and sportsmen's groups. Such groups in coalition have clout, given that they have large, active memberships. However, they are in the thick of politics and their issues have a following and, of course, enemies too.

One of the most effective things that Jacob did was to recruit two local term limit activists to form the Florida Initiative League devoted solely to defending the citizens' right to the initiative process. He says it sent a clear-cut message: on the one side there were people who wanted to protect the right of citizens to decide important policy questions through their ballot; on the other side there were legislators and lobbyists who wanted to deprive the citizens of that right.

Indeed, the issue took on added salience because the measures would have been on the general election ballot. House Democrats realized that after talking to the coalition members. Jacob warned the Bush/Cheney campaign that the ballot measures would have presented an enticing opportunity to show Gov. Bush as an elitist at a time when his own brother, George W., wants to foist that label on John Kerry in the presidential race.

Two measures met their demise in the state House. Only the measure to limit filing deadlines for initiatives passed.

Legislators received their share of e-mails and letters and calls from constituents. Jacob says the volume was less important than the recognition that there would be a campaign to defeat the amendments and the pro-initiative forces were likely to come out on top when the votes were counted.

The prognosis for the initiative process in Florida is still uncertain. Jacob thinks the politicians and lobbyists behind the anti-initiative forces will come back in Florida next year. More than likely, he is right. The Florida Initiative League is ready and waiting.

The Florida victory however, injects a shot of adrenalin to the initiative movement. As noted, Florida is not the only state where politicians want to deny the people the right to decide policy questions for themselves. The lesson is that the pro-initiative movement can play defense as it continues to press forward with its own campaign to expand the initiative process. That's something that should give the politicians pause.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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