Referendums, Inititiatives, Recall Votes Would Give Citizens More Input
By JOHN J. WOODCOCK III
May 04, 2008
We often read of public opinion polls giving poor ratings to President Bush and Congress. No such poll has been taken regarding the Connecticut General Assembly and state government, but suffice it to say they would probably not fare well in such a poll of Connecticut citizens.
What is affecting the citizenry's opinion of its state government? Is it citizen apathy, poor job performance, voter fatigue, or the myriad important issues such as escalating electric rates and public safety tragedies?
I believe that Connecticut citizens have the will and interest to stimulate and invigorate their government and make it more responsive to their concerns and their needs.
Just 26 years ago, Connecticut consumers deluged the state Capitol with their support of Connecticut's first-in-the-nation Lemon Law. In the age before the Internet, they attended public hearings, held rallies, wrote thousands of letters and even flew an airplane over the Capitol with a banner expressing support of the pending law.
Recently, on Feb. 4, a snowy Monday night, more than 18,000 people attended a Barack Obama rally at the XL Center in Hartford. It was a last-minute, short-notice rally and those in attendance, including me, were struck by the cross-section of Connecticut citizens. People of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions participated in a most demonstrative and energetic way.
Today more than ever, Connecticut's government desperately needs an injection of citizen input. Our legislature has become an isolated "Incumbent Nation." The past dozen legislative election results illustrate this clearly.
If Connecticut's leaders want to change the political environment of non-inclusiveness, they should offer and support citizen empowerment laws that promote democracy and citizen participation. These laws have been around for a long time and have been legislated by many states across the country.
Former longtime state Sen. George "Doc" Gunther repeatedly and unsuccessfully introduced a referendum and initiative bill during his long career. A referendum — when a vote by the legislature puts a public policy question before voters — would provide a clear picture of public opinion. In Connecticut, legislators and special interest lobbyists have historically belittled and opposed this legislation.
A direct initiative law allows citizens to place a public policy issue on the ballot with no legislative approval needed. At least 26 states have these referendum laws available to their citizens, and more than 25 states provide for initiatives from their citizens.
Another citizen proposal that has grown popular is the imposition of term limits. At least 15 states have, through voter initiatives, enacted term limits for their legislators. They include California, Maine, Florida and Michigan, among others. Support for term limits has grown into a national movement fueled by public sentiment that legislators, over time, grow insulated from their constituencies as they become more beholden to special interests. There is little support for term limits in the Connecticut legislature.
Finally, Connecticut law should provide for the recall of public officials. Recall is a process requiring petition signatures from the public calling for a vote, which, if successful, will remove a public official from office before the end of his term.
Eighteen states permit recall of state officials. California voters recalled Gov. Grey Davis in 2003. Recall election powers exist in over 68 percent of U.S. cities. It is a valuable tool to express public opinion, and secondly, provide for more accountability over our elected officials.
Collectively, these reform proposals, tried and proved in other states, offer Connecticut citizens much-needed citizen rights. To become law, these reforms would have to be initiated and approved by the legislature, which has historically given them a very cold shoulder.
Perhaps the time is now, in this historic presidential election year, that we seek out and elect legislators who will advocate and work for the passage of laws that will strengthen Connecticut's democracy and empower its citizens.
John J. Woodcock III, a lawyer, is an adjunct political science professor at Central Connecticut State University and former Democratic state representative.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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