Ballot Commission offers modest changes

The 19-member Initiated and Referred Measures Study Commission has passed four recommendations to the Legislative Management Committee for further action before the upcoming 2019 legislative session.

The first proposal calls for inclusion of a fiscal impact of the proposed initiated or referred measure in the ballot language.

The advocates of this proposal hope that disclosure of cost will kill any measure calling for expenditure. And if the Legislature is in any way connected to making the estimate, you can bet it will be high enough to frighten voters.

The second measure gives groups initiating or referring legislation access to the experienced bill-drafting skills of Legislative Council staff members.

This measure comes from the experience the Legislature had in untangling the 23-page draft providing for legalization of medical marijuana. Since the measure was approved by a vote of the people, a two-thirds vote was required to alter the language.

The measure, shot full of errors and unnecessarily lengthy, made it difficult to make the proposed program workable while fighting the need for an unusual majority to make changes.

This portion of the Commission’s work hit home because in 1962 I drafted the language of the initiated measure that provided for a secret primary. My language had to be corrected by the Legislature.

The third recommendation of the Commission would require more fiscal impact statements, this time on referral petitions. The requirement already applies to initiated measures.

The fourth proposal would change the financial reporting system so that in-state supporters of measures would have to meet the same requirements that are now applied to out-of-state contributors.

The requirement for a fiscal impact statement in the ballot language could be more impactful than a statement by the legislative leadership as is now the case with initiated measures

When the Legislature passed the requirement for a fiscal impact statement for initiated measures, supporters had expectations that citizens would hold their breath until the statement came out and it would kill the proposals.

Actually, it turned out to be one press release with a cost estimate that was missed by most voters. It had little impact on the measures at the polls. If placed in the ballot language, however, it will be seen by many more citizens and could have some effect on the outcome.

The right to initiate laws and refer legislative acts has been a thorn in the side the legislative assembly from their beginning in the first decades of the 1900s. The early Legislatures were forced by the political climate of the times to go along with creation of these tools of “direct democracy.” However, hostility between the two systems has mounted as the initiative and referendum have been used to circumvent and second-guess the Legislature.

The number of signatures was cut in half when women were added to the electorate, making it even easier to get the signatures needed to put measures on the ballot.

The most consistent attacks on the initiative and referendum came in legislative proposals to increase the number of signatures required. This approach failed at least seven times, even when the proposed signature increases were modest.

Because there has been constant hostility of the Legislature toward the initiative and referendum, those supporting these “tools of direct democracy” are required to be aware of constant erosion of the autonomy of the two methods of legislation.

The recommendations of the Commission are modest. Reports suggest, however, that Commission members will propose more stringent regulations for the initiative and referendum when the Legislature meets.