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'Direct Democracy' Would Mean Sheer Chaos

Rick Green

October 21, 2008

On Election Day, California voters will burrow through a pile of a dozen complicated referendum questions.

They must decide about gay marriage and teenage abortion. They will be asked to fork over for high-speed trains, cops, drug criminals, renewable energy, hospitals and veterans with no understanding of how this might affect the budget.

This seat-of-the-pants government could come to Connecticut if the folks behind the constitutional convention vote campaign succeed.

Next month, a ballot question will ask whether we should hold a constitutional convention, which could lead to an amendment allowing these "citizen initiatives."

Supporters refer to this by the cunning name of "direct democracy."

It's more like Voters-Gone-Wild.

These days, a good portion of government in California revolves around these referendum questions and special interests pushing their various agendas. Don't like something? Forget our representative democracy just gather signatures and start a knee-jerk campaign: Stop teacher unions! Legalize pot! Rebates for Prius drivers!

"It has voters making policy decisions in a vacuum," said Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst who studies citizen initiatives for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voters in Connecticut should pay attention to the crafty campaign pushing to bring this referendum chicanery here. The real goal is to force their costly special agendas down our throats again and again.

Citizen initiative, if passed, could break the state budget because proposals placed on the ballot have costly price tags. It could also ruin the budget in another way: A ballot question in Massachusetts this year proposes eliminating the state income tax, removing a third of state revenue that pays for roads, schools and police.

In Colorado, voters have approved constitutional amendments that mandate simultaneous budget cutting and increases for education. Why bother passing laws or balancing the budget if we're going to bring every important question to the voters?

According to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, the referendums increasingly are about social issues or slashing or greatly expanding government spending. In Colorado this fall, voters will consider 18 ballot questions.

In Arizona, they are so fed up with this direct democracy that a ballot question next month proposes restricting measures that raise taxes or require new spending. Florida has already scaled back its initiative law.

Good laws and effective government programs are achieved through informed debate and compromise, not emotional referendums that reduce the process to a yes-or-no vote. Would the Voting Rights Act have been approved in the South in 1964? I doubt it.

Meanwhile, the reality is that "special interests and the party bosses today have been very effective at using the initiative process," said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies citizen initiatives.

A few weeks ago, the Sacramento Bee newspaper warned that "the initiative industry is out of control. ... We have initiatives on the ballot this year sponsored by out-of-state billionaires and groups that want the constitution to specify the size of chicken cages."

One of the hottest questions in California is about the size of cages for chickens and other farm animals.

Is it any surprise that California the chaotic epicenter of direct initiative referendum voting is verging on bankruptcy these days?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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