Reactions to Proposition 13, Initiative and Referendum PART TWO
|June 10, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Initiative and Referendum
Reactions to Proposition 13
Twenty years ago, on June 6, 1978, Proposition 13 passed in California. The measure not only limited taxes for land speculators and homeowners, but also touched off nationwide debate on citizen initiatives. As The Texas Observer put it, “in certain quarters, the measure’s blunderbuss attack on the property tax system is seen as a sure sign that the initiative procedure lends itself to abuse by a distempered electorate.”
This is the second of three days in a row where The Progress Report prints reactions to Proposition 13, each written just days after its original passage.
A new idea at the federal level
By Harris Worcester
Many a frustrated congressman or senator has quietly forsaken Capitol Hill of late, disillusioned by the unchanging sequence of deadlocks and deals that make up the bulk of the congressional agenda and mock the ambitions of the reform-minded. Not so Sen. James Abourezk, maverick Democrat from South Dakota, who is making his leavetaking the occasion for a parting shot at legislative inertia. His.gambit to revive the national body politic takes the form of a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to initiate and directly enact federal legislation.
Though Abourezk’s Voter Initiative Amendment, formally proposed last July, offers a new idea at the federal level, it/comes with a distinguished pedigree, traceable to the plebiscites of republican Rome and 80 years of testing at the state level in the United States since Abourezk’s home state became the first to adopt it in 1898. Fifteen states now have the initiative procedure in its pure form–citizens can place a proposed law on their ballots simply by petitioning for it in sufficient numbers. Five others permit a petition to their legislatures to act on citizen proposals before they come up for a binding popular vote, and three states make both versions of the mechanism available.
The chance to vote directly on federal statutes excites the same hopes for reform today that the state measures aroused among Populists and Progressives at the turn of the century, and for much the same reason: the initiative is a potent remedy for the corruption of the representative process by powerful private interests.
But its potency is exactly what worries opponents of the Abourezk proposal. Sharing in what Washington Monthly writer Michael Melson calls a “grand revival” of mistrust In the judgment of the American electorate, such luminaries as Robert Heilbroner have expressed misgivings about putting the power to make law directly in:the hands of the people, who, they say, are too easily swayed by emotional appeals and are incapable of bringing the necessary legal exIjertise and deliberate scrutiny to bear on proposed legilation.:Sbme civil libertarians feaii as well that a direct, majority-rule legislative process could become a vehicle for the subversion of the rights of minorifies.
The prospect that only well-heefed and well-organized interests might be able to use the procedure successfully also causes some alarm, even among proponents of the initiative idea. ·Ralph Nader, who testified for the proposal in Senate hearings last December, has nonetheless warned that “a national initiative right can only work if there is adquate access to the mass media for all viewpoints.” Opponents, who think that precondition can’t be met, make the objection much more emphatically: Corey Bush, a former press secretary for San Francisco mayor George Moscone; claims that with $325,000 a public relations firm could get any issue on the California ballot.
Supporters of the Abourezk amendment point to the specifics of his proposal as a partial answer to these criticisms. To put a bill on the general election ballot, petitioners would have tb collect signatures of registered voters equal in number to 3 percent of the votes cast nationwide in the most recent presidential election (or nearly two and a half million, to use the Carter-Ford turnout as a benchmark), and that total would also have to include 3 percent of the vote cast in each of ten states (in Texas, again using 1976 totals, that would mean more than 120,000 signatures).
Abourezk’s federal proposal also incorporates substantive constraints that don’t appear in state initiative laws. A newly approved ballot proposition would be subject to presidential veto, and could be amended or repealed by a two-thirds roll-call vote of both houses of Congress. Moreover, the procedure could not be used to declare war, call out the militia, or — most significantly — amend the Constitution.
Even with these qualifications, a federal initiative· procedure would present an unprecedented opportunity for citizen control of the federal colossus, but proponents confidently cite the initiative experience at the state level in response to remaining criticisms. No state has ever rescinded the initiative right. Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, a co-sponsor of Abourezk’s resolution, notes that in his state, initiatives have been responsible since 1902 for the abolition of capital punishment and the establishment of women’s suffrage and compulsory education. In California, the same initiative mechanism that made this year’s Proposition 13 possible gave petitioners in 1976 the means to pressure their legislature into passing progressive farm labor legislation and–over the vehement and well-financed opposition of power company lobbyists–a stringent nuclear ivaste disposal law.
According to Abourezk, six states now have initiative bills pending, and similar bills are being prepared in four others. His federal version has meanwhile attracted several more Senate sponsors, and 25 or so congressmen have joined to sponsor a counterpart resolution in the House. To help speed the federal proposal on its way through the cumbersome constitutional amendment process, a national citizens’ group calling itself Initiative America was formed last February. However, Bill Harrington, the group’s leader, cautiously forecasts that it may take six years to gain the needed two thirds approval in the Senate and House and secure ratification by three-fourths of the states.
However long the process takes, national initiative supporters see reasons to suppose that broadcast commentator David Brinkley may have been wrong when he said last year that “Congress would never pass it. It would have to give up some of its power.” Early this year, Congress readily approved an initiative system for the District of Columbia (83 percent of district residents had voted for it). And Abourezk aide Stephan Carter reports that pollsters Patrick Caddell and George Gallup recently found that 57 percent of the people favor the Voter Initiative Amendment.
Carter also mentions a little-noted feature of the California balloting on June 6: in Los Angeles County, where voters approved the Jarvis property tax initiative by a two-to-one margin, a ballot question on the desirability of the national initiative idea drew an even higher favorable vote. Election returns like that may convince members of Congress who see danger in the national initiative idea that the greatest danger of all for them lies in opposing it.
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