State leg­is­la­tures now foil lib­eral bal­lot mea­sures

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

DEN­VER | A free mar­ket guy like the In­de­pen­dence In­sti­tute’s Jon Cal­dara nor­mally doesn’t have much in com­mon with pro­gres­sives, ex­cept when it comes to bal­lot mea­sures.

Lib­eral ac­tivists are fu­ri­ous after spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to pass left-wing bal­lot ini­tia­tives in Novem­ber in states such as Ok­la­homa, Maine and South Dakota, only to see Repub­li­can law­mak­ers use their leg­isla­tive mus­cle to gut, mod­ify or out­right re­peal them this year.

Mr. Cal­dara feels their pain. A fre­quent spon­sor of right-tilt­ing bal­lot mea­sures in Colorado, he has watched for years as Demo­cratic state leg­is­la­tors chip away at a con­ser­va­tive fa­vorite: the Tax­payer Bill of Rights, passed by vot­ers in 1992.

The coup de grace came in June, when the Colorado state legislature voted to levy a charge on hospi­tals with­out putting the is­sue on the bal­lot,

even though the Tax­payer Bill of Rights, also known as TABOR, re­quires all tax in­creases to go be­fore the vot­ers.

“There is no bet­ter poster child for the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem de­stroy­ing an ini­tia­tive by the cit­i­zenry,” said Mr. Cal­dara. “Let me say it re­ally clear: TABOR is dead. The Tax­payer Bill of Rights, for all in­tents and pur­poses, is dead in Colorado.”

In other words, the left now is learn­ing the hard way what the right has long known: Just be­cause the vot­ers pass a bal­lot pro­posal doesn’t mean the state legislature won’t fight it.

For years, state bal­lot mea­sures were the go-to mech­a­nism for con­ser­va­tives shut out of the law­mak­ing process by Democrats. But with Repub­li­cans in con­trol of 32 state leg­is­la­tures — 33 with the non­par­ti­san Ne­braska uni­cam­eral — the cit­i­zen ini­tia­tive process in­creas­ingly has mor­phed into a tool of the left.

Seventy-six ini­tia­tives ap­peared on U.S. bal­lots in Novem­ber, “the high­est num­ber in more than a decade,” ac­cord­ing to the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts’ State­line blog, and many were from the left, in­clud­ing min­i­mum wage in­creases, tax hikes and crim­i­nal jus­tice re­forms.

Jus­tine Sarver, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the lib­eral Bal­lot Ini­tia­tive Strat­egy Cen­ter, cited 2016 pro­gres­sive bal­lot tri­umphs on rais­ing the min­i­mum wage in four states, in­creas­ing taxes in two and pro­vid­ing work­ers with manda­tory sick leave in two states. She pre­dicted those wins are only the be­gin­ning.

“At BISC we are al­ready more than one year into a multi-year, multi-state, proac­tive strat­egy, Roadmap to 2020, which will put mea­sures on the bal­lot to ad­dress eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties and ex­pand ac­cess to democ­racy na­tion­wide,” Ms. Sarver said in a Jan­uary press re­lease.

In Maine, vot­ers ap­proved a mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion ini­tia­tive as well as three left-wing mea­sures — an over­haul of the elec­tion sys­tem, a tipped min­i­mum wage hike and a 3 per­cent in­come tax in­crease for top earn­ers — but the eu­pho­ria for the winners was short-lived.

No sooner had the Legislature con­vened than Repub­li­cans took on the mea­sures, re­peal­ing the in­come tax hike, wa­ter­ing down the min­i­mum wage law — with the sup­port of restau­rant servers who feared it would re­duce their in­comes — and se­cur­ing a state­ment from the Maine Supreme Court in­di­cat­ing that swaths of the ranked-choice vot­ing sys­tem were un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Iron­i­cally, the pro­gres­sive bal­lot vic­to­ries came even as Repub­li­cans gained ground in the Maine Legislature.

“It’s a re­sult of the frus­tra­tion that they have that they can’t get these bad poli­cies through the Legislature be­cause we have a gov­er­nor who will veto de­struc­tive poli­cies,” said Ja­son Savage, Maine Repub­li­can Party ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “In­stead, they’re just go­ing di­rectly to the bal­lot to pass their utopian ideas and not even try­ing any­more.”

‘Will of the vot­ers’

The Repub­li­can Party’s dis­man­tling came at a price. In July, Maine Gov. Paul LePage briefly de­clared a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down as law­mak­ers wres­tled with headaches trig­gered by the pas­sage of the mea­sures, which dom­i­nated the leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

“It puts us in a de­fen­sive pos­ture de­fend­ing tax­pay­ers, de­fend­ing peo­ple’s free­dom, de­fend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion,” said Mr. Savage. “It would be a lot nicer for Repub­li­cans to talk about the poli­cies that they think would help peo­ple in­stead of un­do­ing poli­cies that are hurt­ing the econ­omy or vi­o­lat­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

There is no end in sight: Maine pro­gres­sives al­ready have placed an ini­tia­tive on the Novem­ber bal­lot to fund an ex­pan­sion of Medicaid.

While Maine may rep­re­sent the most ex­treme ex­am­ple of pro­gres­sive bal­lot ac­tivism in Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal ter­ri­tory, the Pine Tree State isn’t alone.

In South Dakota, Repub­li­can Gov. Den­nis Dau­gaard signed in Jan­uary a re­peal of Ini­ti­ated Mea­sure 22, a cam­paign fi­nance pro­posal passed two months ear­lier with pres­sure from a lib­eral Mas­sachusetts ad­vo­cacy group, after a court found it un­con­sti­tu­tional.

In Ok­la­homa, two bal­lot mea­sures backed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and ap­proved in Novem­ber were promptly met by Repub­li­can-spon­sored re­peal leg­is­la­tion. The bills failed, and the ini­tia­tives — to re­duce cer­tain drug and prop­erty crimes to mis­de­meanors — took ef­fect July 1.

Pro­gres­sives who have ral­lied be­hind ef­forts to shift their fo­cus to the bal­lot ini­tia­tive have de­cried Repub­li­can ef­forts to de­rail the mea­sures, which in­clude moves by state leg­is­la­tures to make qual­i­fy­ing for the bal­lot more dif­fi­cult.

“What all these at­tacks have in com­mon is a bla­tant con­tempt for the will of the vot­ers,” said Ms. Sarver. “Con­ser­va­tives’ dis­re­gard for bal­lot mea­sures is es­pe­cially hyp­o­crit­i­cal be­cause they were once an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal tool for them.”

Of course, con­ser­va­tives also have had their best-laid bal­lot mea­sures up­ended by Democrats. Ex­hibit A is same-sex mar­riage.

Vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia ap­proved same­sex mar­riage bans twice, in 2000 and 2008. The first time, the Demo­crat-con­trolled State Legislature voted to re­peal the mea­sure, only to have Repub­li­can Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger veto it.

As at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jerry Brown re­fused to de­fend the tra­di­tional mar­riage ini­tia­tive in re­sponse to a law­suit, forc­ing the mea­sure’s spon­sors to hire pri­vate coun­sel. The legal chal­lenge ul­ti­mately pre­vailed.

In the case of mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion, Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors in sev­eral states es­sen­tially have de­ferred the de­ci­sion to vot­ers. But on other is­sues, there is of­ten a rea­son a pro­posal has not cleared the leg­isla­tive process.

“Gen­er­ally speak­ing, it’s true that if the legislature thought it was a good idea, they would have done it al­ready,” said Craig Bur­nett, Hof­s­tra Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor. “Al­most ev­ery pol­icy pro­posed by ini­tia­tive is al­most by con­struc­tion out of sync with what the legislature wants. If they re­ally wanted it, they could have done it al­ready.”

That means pass­ing the bal­lot ini­tia­tive is only the first step. The real work be­gins af­ter­ward, Mr. Cal­dara said.

“It all goes back to [Thomas] Jef­fer­son say­ing the price of lib­erty is eter­nal vig­i­lance. That’s what this is,” he said. “It’s not a vic­tory un­til you se­cure and de­fend it year after year. Be­cause they will find a way.”

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