Over time, even worthwhile and necessary reforms can themselves become problematic. Take, Colorado’s initiative process. What began as a tool by which citizens could regain control of governments hijacked by outsiders has instead become a mechanism that allows special interests to force the voters to address their narrowly focused concerns.
It is a process that needs to be fixed – not scrapped, but modified to help return it to its original intent. And that was never for the voters to supplant the Legislature or the City Council.
Nonetheless, that is exactly how it is increasingly being used.
There is no reason to think, for example, that the proposed chemical ban comes in response to a widely perceived problem. There is no evidence the city has mismanaged its lawn-care policies, that anyone has been endangered, that money has been wasted or authority abused. What is evident is that some folks believe with theological certainty that pesticides are bad – at any time and in any amount.
Whether they outnumber others who care more about the safety and appearance of soccer fields, Hillcrest’s fairways and spending a lot more money remains to be seen.
Putting a questionbefore the voters is in some regards as old as the republic – older if ancient Greece is considered. In it modern form, however, it dates to the Progressive era of a century ago and is largely associated with western states.
At that time, many state legislatures were seen as in thrall to the railroads and other monied interests. A famous political cartoon of the time depicted the mining company Anaconda Copper as a large snake wrapping itself around Montana.
The initiative process was enacted precisely to enable citizens to go around corrupt legislatures to regain control of their state governments. It continues so as to remind unresponsive lawmakers of the voters’ ultimate authority. And in Colorado, it was specifically extended to cities and towns.
But it was never intended to displace the legislative responsibilities of the General Assembly or the City Council. And it was most certainly never meant to empower single-issue advocates, fringe groups or special interests.
While this appears to be only the second time the initiative process has been used in Durango, it has become common at the state level where its abuse can be clearly seen. In part, that is a function of the process. A 1988 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (Meyer vs. Grant) said Colorado could not prohibit initiative backers from paying people to collect signatures. As a result, anyone with enough money can effectively put almost anything on the ballot.
And they do. Colorado has seen initiatives on everything from gambling, marijuana and hunting rules to mandated spending, term limits, gay rights, taxes, and, of course, abortion.
Some passed, most failed. Some were good ideas, many were not. A disproportionate number came from groups on the political fringes, left and right.
Backers of a initiative need not demonstrate a need for their proposal or why it would be effective. They are not required to show how it might interact with existing law, or what it might cost.
Reforming the process should not aim make it more difficult, but to make it more representative of voters’ actual concerns. Requiring more signatures might help, as would broader geographic diversity. Statewide measures might require a given number of names from each congressional district or, on a per capita basis, from every county. City measures could be by precinct.
No doubt there are other ideas as well. But the point should be the same: The voters should have more say about what appears on the ballot. And single-focus groups should have less.