March 27, 2006

Why One Conservative Supports Voter Initiative

Marc Comtois

In his recent post, Don made some good points about the inherent problems of RI's government--it's too big--and proposed that Rhode Island was in desperate need of a TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights). Moreover, Don explained his reasoned reluctance to support Voter Initiative (VI):

Should the Voter Initiative pass, special interests will simply adjust and change their modus operandi. They will likely be no less powerful. Rather, they will simply direct their efforts in other ways, just like Guy Dufault did in the recent constitutional convention vote. Or by organizing voters who are a part of their public sector activities, like union workers.
Gary Boden also provides some evidence to bolster this position:
The idea of a more direct democracy seems appealing, but a recent action by Matthew Thomas, chief sachem of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, shows how voter initiative will be corrupted by special interests. As explained in the Providence Journal today, Thomas has requested that the V.I. Alliance "announce publicly its unconditional support of a constitutional amendment to 'let the people decide' the Narragansett Indian casino."
Both Don and Gary offer excellent precautionary tales . They are also voicing a traditional conservative--and some would say pragmatic--argument against VI. I also share some of those concerns. But last October, Andrew addressed essentially these same arguments and explained that maintaining the status quo is untenable because the status quo is largely to blame for RI's current broken political system. Thanks to a unique combination of both geographic and population size, one party-rule has established near permanence in state government. I don't think I need to go over the well-trod ground again, but suffice it to say that this has led to the killing of bills in committee and the sort of legislative obfuscation that has succeeded in making it hard for the average voter to know what is being proposed and shelved in the State House. As the official RI Voter Initiative website explains:
VI serves as a safety valve for use when the state legislature is not responsive to the needs and requests of the citizens, as has been the case all too often in our recent history. There have been many instances of corruption and foot dragging in the RI legislature, where connected and powerful legislators de-railed the lawmaking process, all for the improper benefit of a few special interests. VI is a safety valve to prevent these abuses and to expedite important reforms.
Don's characterization that VI would replace one set of special interests with another set of special interests--albeit one (hopefully) more amenable to conservatives--is probably correct. However, some special interests could be supportive of TABOR and I happen to think that the only way that TABOR would be enacted in Rhode Island would be via Voter Initiative. The current Democrat-controlled legislature would never allow such a referendum.

We need look no further than our politically similar neighbor, Massachusetts, for an example of the successful use of the voter initiative. Without the opportunity provided by voter initiative, Proposition 2 1/2--which set a cap on property tax increases in Massachusetts--would probably have never seen the light of day, much less been brought to the voters or passed. At least with VI, ideas like TABOR or Prop 2 1/2 can be proposed and--with enough public support--be brought to a public vote without having to deal with the roadblocks to reform that the RI General Assembly likes to throw up.

Would it be better if public opinion could be brought to bear on the legislators who would then place reform legislation such as TABOR on the ballot? Of course, but there is little in recent history to suggest that this would actually happen here in Rhode Island. After living in the Ocean State for a little more than a decade, I am slowly coming to believe that only through Voter Initiative do such reform ideas as TABOR or School Choice have a fighting chance.

I understand the well-reasoned conservative antipathy towards VI. I would love it if we could fix the RI government via the normal process of legislative turnover. However, I've seen no indication that such turnover is imminent and, frankly, I've come to be in favor of a more immediate solution to some of the problems faced by Rhode Islanders.

My wife and I are raising two young, school-age kids and we can't afford to wait for a slow and methodic changing of the political guard. Yes, I'll do my part to continue to help promote such change, but the reform battle can be fought on multiple fronts. As such, I think that VI can be a more immediate and effective tool in the reform process while we conservatives wait for the groundswell of voters who are amenable to our views.

Is that naive of me? Am I being too idealistic towards the hoped-for goals of VI? Perhaps. But waiting for that groundswell may be just as naive, and the political system as it stands now isn't helping my family. Even if the worst case scenario as offered by Don and Gary should come to pass, the result would be nothing more than a different version of the status quo. I'm willing to at least take a shot with the Voter Initiative.

Here are a couple additional notes on Voter Initiative:

There's a good chance that Voter Initiative may actually save the state--and more importantly taxpayers--money. A study (PDF) done in 1995 on the fiscal effects of the voter initiative over 30 years concluded:

Initiatives led to significantly lower spending and taxes. per capita spending, for example, was about $83 per capita lower in a typical initiative state than a typical non-initiative state, which translates into $332 less expenditure (and hence taxes and fees) for a family of four. Compared to the average level of state and local spending, $2300 per capita, initiatives caused a reduction of 4 percent.

Initiatives led states to decentralize spending decisions. Local spending was 10 percent higher in initiative states than non-initiative states, while state spending was 12 percent lower. Thus, voters used initiatives to force spending decisions to be made closer to home.

Initiatives led states to adopt a less redistributional revenue system. In initiative states, broad based taxes (primarily on property, income, and sales) were 8 percent lower than in non initiative states, while fees for services (such as college tuition) were 7 percent higher. Initiative states charged users for services they received instead passing the costs on to other taxpayers. [Note: The author of the study took much more into account than whether or not a state had VI.-MAC]

I'd also like to address Gary's particluar fear concerning the influence that special interests will have on the Voter Initiative process:
without the benefit of an established opposition ready to debate the issue. Opponents of an idea will have to scramble like mad under a severe timeline. It will be like a trick play in football; the defense simpley [sic] will have no time to prepare to stop it. There will be no way to build in sundown clauses or checks and balances. There is no guarantee that future legislation will control any crazy idea that passes. Someone once said, "there is a simple answer to every problem, an in every case it is the wrong answer."
On this, Gary is simply incorrect. Again, according to the RI VI website:
The bottom line is that VI law is much more thoroughly reviewed, debated, and deliberated than other laws. The debate period would be at least 18months, including the signature gathering period, review by the General Assembly and then the time necessary to have it placed on the ballot. If it were practical, all bills should be as well reviewed by the legislature and the public as VI proposals. . .the proposed VI legislation for RI very much involves the participation of the General Assembly. Before an initiative goes on the ballot the General Assembly will hold hearings and vote on it. If approved by the General Assembly and the Governor, the initiative becomes law. If not approved, it will go on the ballot. . .

Many ballot question campaigns have been lost by big money. The proposed legislation includes strict campaign finance disclosures during the initiative process. Voters are able to see the source of campaign contributions and who is sponsoring the initiative. The existing legislative system --with its high priced lobbyists and back room dealings --is much more vulnerable to big money influence. . .

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The one law that will never be repealed is the Law of Unintended Consequences. One uninteded consequence will be greater volatility in the legislative process as opposing sides seek to balance VI referenda results with reactionary bills in the following General Assembly sessions. Maybe that's good or neutral, but somehow I'm skeptical it will work out neatly. I'm going to have to see a lot of ironclad language in a VI bill before I trust it. My worst fear is that VI gets twisted into another tool of the special interests to the further detriment of the voting public.

Posted by: Gary Boden at March 27, 2006 8:32 PM

Looks like its "library day" at Butler for James

Posted by: warbucks at March 27, 2006 9:25 PM