The citizen ballot initiative and referendum are powerful and important tools in maintaining a government of, by and for the people. They allow the governed to address the perceived shortcomings of our government.
But with some of the issues being pushed for inclusion on future ballots, we have to wonder, just what does the proliferation of initiative and referendum measures say about the state of our government?
An initiative is an effort to pass legislation. A referendum is an effort to approve or reject recently passed legislation. We’ve been asked to cast a ballot on some of each, both state-wide and local, during recent elections. To make the process accessible to citizens, the threshold to get a measure on the ballot is fairly low — signatures from 10 percent of the number of registered voters who cast ballots in the previous general election.
The issue garnering the top headlines of late is recent passage of changes in the state’s method of taxing oil. It took the Legislature years to come up with a tax scheme that would get enough votes to pass the House and Senate. It also took an election cycle to change some the members of the Legislature making those votes.
Before the Legislature had even gaveled out, those who opposed changes to the oil tax structure were promising to support a referendum to put the issue before voters.
But it is those same voters who sent those legislators to Juneau, and demanded action on the issue. In most cases, the electorate knew where each candidate stood on oil taxes before the election. It was a centerpiece in many campaigns. They did what they were elected to do.
We’d like to think that each election serves as a referendum on our legislators, and that, if they’re not doing the job we elected them to do, we can replace them. The referendum on oil tax changes appears to be the tyranny of the minority, in which a small percentage of voters seek to change state policy. What’s more, referendum backers are asking voters to make a decision on a complex issue with little more than bumper sticker slogans for guidance — not the multiple consultants, hours of testimony and reams of data legislators used when crafting the bill.
Then again, we can look at it this another way: the referendum would provide a means to reaffirm that our legislators did what we wanted them to do.
But if every contentious issue that comes along is going to require a referendum to approve or reject it, why are we electing legislators in the first place?