Initiatives Serve Special Interests And Undermine Responsible Governance
By ROBERT SATTER
June 29, 2008
Ardent special-interest groups are pushing to have the right of initiative written into the Connecticut Constitution — a formula for ill-conceived lawmaking that would wrest important policy considerations away from elected officials.
The right of initiative is the right of citizens to propose laws or constitutional amendments that, if approved by a majority vote, have the force of law. Pressure for such a change in our constitution is rising because, in November, Connecticut citizens will vote on the question, "Shall there be a Constitution Convention to amend or revise the Constitution of the State?" The constitution requires such a vote every 20 years.
A number of groups, The Connecticut Taxpayers Association among them, are seeking an affirmative vote on the question, which would open the constitution up for a right of initiative amendment. The Connecticut Taxpayers president revealed as much in a recent debate on the issue sponsored by the Federalist Society.
When initiative proposals are voted upon, representative democracy is supplanted, the legislature and the governor are cut out of lawmaking, and the people rule directly.
That is a bad way to govern, although the right of initiative exists in 17 states. It should not be adopted in Connecticut.
Initiative proposals are drafted by private lawyers representing narrow interest groups. Their wording frames the issue and cannot later be changed. The proposals get on the ballot when a specified number of voters sign a petition, typically 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Those signatures are not spontaneously given by the public, but must be actively solicited. In the initiative states, a cottage industry of signature solicitors has sprung up. In California, it typically costs $1 million to obtain the requisite number of signers.
The proposals are considered in isolation without taking into account their relationship to other relevant issues. As Professor Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University, the leading authority on state legislatures, says in his book, "The Decline of Representative Democracy": "The focus is on the single issue, and not on the broader spectrum. ... The disputants battle it out with virtually no consideration of how the issue in question relates more broadly to governance and policy."
And how is the campaign over initiative proposals waged? It is waged by slogans, bumper stickers, 10-second sound bites and by TV ads as if selling toothpaste. The vote is yes or no, up or down.
There is not the deliberation and accommodation of the legislative process in which bills are carefully scrutinized by committees of cognizance, subjected to a public hearing, debated in both chambers and ultimately signed by the governor. In that process, all sides of the issue are explored, its relationship to other matters of public policy considered, negotiations between opposing sides conducted, and compromises and changes of wording made.
In lawmaking by plebiscite, people rarely read the exact language of the propositions. They vote their general impression of the issue.
Those in favor are ardent. The attitude of the public ranges from mild interest to apathy. To paraphrase the poet William Yeats, the wider public "lacks conviction" and the advocates "are full of passionate intensity."
In California, 44 percent of general budget expenditures are mandated by voter-passed initiatives. That substantially limits the governor and legislature in performing their important role of establishing public policy through the budget. It leads Professor Rosenthal to conclude that initiative lawmaking "pulverizes government authority" and makes it impossible for state officials to set priorities.
Washington Post columnist David S. Broder, in his book "Democracy Derailed — Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money," describes how special-interest groups dominate the initiative process and how money, provided or raised by these groups, plays an important role in the outcome of initiative battles.
He characterizes initiatives as creating "laws without government," and warns of its expansion as a "tragic mistake."
Connecticut should avoid such a mistake.
Robert Satter is a judge trial referee in Hartford Superior Court and author of "Under the Gold Dome — An Insider's Look at the Connecticut Legislature."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at