Voter-approved measures again collide with states’ desperate need to cut costs, pols pushback

By Brad Cain, AP
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lawmakers pushback against costly ballot measures

SALEM, Ore. — There may be no state more in love with letting residents vote on ballot measures than Oregon. They have voted hundreds of times over the past century and brought the state a property tax limit and nation’s first state assisted-suicide law.

In good times, Oregon lawmakers, like those in the 23 other states with the initiative system, dutifully implement the law despite its cost. But in bad times, like the current recession, they sometimes push back, experts say.

Oregon lawmakers suspended for two years most parts of a voter-passed law mandating longer sentences for repeat property offenders and drug dealers, and passed new restrictions to make sure costly initiative measures don’t get on the ballot fraudulently.

In Washington state, lawmakers voted to save nearly $1 billion by largely ignoring a pair of education initiatives, including one calling for annual teacher raises. The Democratic majority also suspended a new initiative that steps up training requirements for home-care aides who serve the elderly and disabled.

“One of the biggest concerns that lawmakers have is the financial straitjacket that initiatives can put on legislatures through big spending proposals or through spending and revenue caps,” said Jennie Drage Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Oregon Legislature itself put the crime measure on the November 2008 ballot as a less costly alternative to a stricter sentencing initiative, which voters rejected. Then lawmakers decided this year the state couldn’t afford the cheaper version, either, and put it on hold.

The two-year delay of the crime sentencing measure is expected to save $25.5 million.

During the economic downturn earlier this decade, Bowser said, legislators put off voter-passed laws such as one enacted by Florida voters in 2000 mandating a high-speed rail system that would have cost the state billions.

State analysts in Florida estimated the state could save up to $25 billion over 30 years if the project were derailed. Voters repealed the requirement in 2004.

Use of initiatives has grown since the 1990s, with interest groups bankrolling many of the campaigns. Paid signature gathering has become a big business, too, and that has led to instances of fraud and abuse in places, Bowser said.

In recent years, she said, lawmakers in Oregon and many other states have moved to toughen restrictions in signature collecting, and to provide more information to voters through improved ballot titles, summaries and voters pamphlets.

Since the initiative system was put in place in 1902, Oregonians have acted on 349 initiatives, more than any other state. California is a close second, with 331.

Over the years, voters in both states have approved expensive ballot measures that contained no mechanism to pay for them. In Oregon, the state budget must take into account a property tax limit and criminal sentencing measures that have been adopted by voters.

While the initiative system has strong populist appeal, it can also saddle states with expensive and often conflicting policies. Nowhere was that more difficult than in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers last week finally hammered out a deal to close the state’s $26 billion budget gap.

California’s budgeting is legally bound by an array of voter-passed measures, including Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax cut, along with other measures that have locked in a certain amount of spending for schools and other programs.

Advocates of the initiative and referendum system see it as an equalizer, blunting the power of political bosses by giving citizens the right to enact laws directly or to block ones passed by state lawmakers.

There have been calls for reforming California’s initiative process, although bills to alter the system haven’t gotten far in recent years.

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank that advocates for reform of California’s initiative system, said the state’s voters have been confronted with more than 60 initiatives since 2000.

“People are voting on too many things,” Stern said. “Some of them do cost the state a lot of money.”

Bill Lunch, a political scientist in Oregon, believes voters in this state have become fatigued by the long list of initiatives. At the same time, voters “want to have the initiative process available as a backstop in case they need it,” said Lunch, who teaches political science at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Citizens in Charge Foundation, a Lake Ridge, Va.-based advocacy group, called initiative restrictions approved by Oregon and other states a “blatant attempt to hamper and obstruct the petition process and citizen initiatives.”

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the empire is striking back,” said Paul Jacob, president of the group. “Those in power don’t want citizens looking over their shoulder, and from time to time, dictating what happens.”

Associated Press writer Curtis Woodward in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.

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