My view: Voter initiatives could be an effective states' rights remedy

By Sheryl Allen

Published: Sunday, July 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former Sen. Bob Bennett recently wrote an op-ed for the Deseret News in which he decried the right of voter initiatives as inimical to a republican form of government. Utah's constitution makes the voters co-equal with the state Legislature as a source of lawmaking power. Bennett argues that California's "failed experiment in pure democracy" suggests that Utahns should leave lawmaking to the state Legislature. This argument is not new, but it reflects a glaring blind spot as to history and political reality.

Unquestionably, the California initiative from thirty years ago, known as Proposition 13, has been the single greatest contributor to that state's current fiscal crisis. However, California voters also passed a remarkable initiative mandating candidate nomination by direct primaries.

A significant difference between California and Utah is that our constitution does not allow amendments to that document to be proposed through initiatives; only the legislature may do so, which it does with alarming regularity, on the assumption that Utah voters will swallow anything, and we often do.

In a hundred years, fewer than 30 statewide initiatives have made it to the general election ballot. Given the draconian restrictions placed on the initiative process by legislators in recent years, that number is unlikely to increase by much.

In 1979, Republican legislators in Utah failed in an effort to cement Proposition 13 into Utah's constitution. Had they succeeded, Utah today would be in the same fiscal disaster boat as California. The assertion that legislators are somehow gifted with greater wisdom than voters at large is dubious, as evidenced by the recent closed-door legislative maneuvering to gut Utah's GRAMA law, or the legislature's studied resistance to meaningful ethics reform in the face of overwhelming public support.

California did not adopt the right of initiative out of the blue. It adopted the measure because at the turn of the last century, the California Legislature was a creature controlled by the Southern Pacific Railroad, not by the voters.

In the best of all possible worlds, a republican form of government would feature elected representatives whose interests would be finely attuned to those of the people they represent. However, our current methods of nominating candidates and financing campaigns turn the pure notion of representative government on its head, and Bennett is himself the classic example of turning the nomination process over to a mere handful of partisan ideologues in this one-party state of ours.

The notion that a small group of insiders are better-equipped to make decisions about who should stand for public office than voters at large is inimical to common sense and good government.

More than 80 percent of all contributions to legislative candidates come from corporations and special interests. Some legislators don't raise a dime from individual donors let alone their own constituents. It can be argued that initiatives are often funded by special interests; however, to ignore the one-sided role of special interests in donating to, selecting and electing legislators is to deny reality.

The genius of the American constitutional experiment is its checks and balances on power. We should always remember that the federal Constitution (and its state counterparts) were the product of a series of political compromises; they did not descend from Mt. Sinai. The price of the Miracle at Philadelphia was the continuation of slavery until that question was resolved by a civil war.

Initiative and referenda can also be compromises, wisely adopted as a safety valve against co-option of legislative bodies by money. Californians have sometimes chosen wisely, sometimes not; but to argue against Utah's very different experience from facts unique to California is not fair and shouldn't be persuasive.

If Utahns believe that government is best when it follows the will of the people, there is an appropriate role for initiative and referenda. That the legislative class so vehemently opposes these constitutional rights should tell the rest of us something important about checks and balances.

Sheryl Allen is a former Republican state representative from Bountiful.

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