Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

State Lawmakers Attempt To Counter Ballot Initiatives

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Oklahoma isn't the only state where legislators are rethinking the voters' will. Alan Greenblatt covers politics and policy issues for Governing magazine, and he's been following these moves in state capitals across the country. Alan Greenblatt, welcome to the program.

ALAN GREENBLATT: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: NPR reported recently on the South Dakota State Legislature overturning an anti-corruption measure the voters approved there in November. The governor there, Dennis Daugaard, signed that legislation on Thursday. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage is aiming to undo two November initiatives. What's going on there?

GREENBLATT: Well, one that he would like to block is an increase of the minimum wage, which is a very common ballot topic. And the other is to raise taxes on some high-income folks to help pay for schools. And LePage has been very skeptical about ballot measures in general. He's refused to release funds that were approved by voters in previous years.

This time, he's asking the legislature to undo those initiatives. And he said in December, the legislature doesn't even have to enact it. This is a recommendation, he said to the legislature, what the people are feeling. And that's not true. These are laws.

SIEGEL: So his judgment that these are just advisory is out of line with typical interpretations of initiatives?

GREENBLATT: Well, they are laws, but we are seeing this increased appetite for outright resistance to them.

SIEGEL: Are there examples of ballot measures that have been passed that really cried out to be rolled back, that were genuinely misleading or unconstitutional or unsound in some other way?

GREENBLATT: Well, there certainly has been no end of initiatives that have been challenged in court. Proposition 187, which was a famous measure in California from 1994 - it cut off most public services for undocumented immigrants. That was challenged in courts. Parts of it were found unconstitutional. But usually it is up to the courts to decide whether a law is constitutional or not. It's usually not the political branches of government that weigh in.

SIEGEL: But in some of the Western states that pioneered democracy by ballot initiative and referendum, a question on the ballot can be the subject of big advertising by well-funded lobbies that have a stake in it. Is it fair to say that ballot initiatives are no longer driven by the grassroots politics that they might once have been?

GREENBLATT: Yeah, they've actually become very big business. I think California alone last year had half a billion dollars in spending. They often are pushed by big interest groups, whether it's medical companies - I mean progressives in particular have turned to them in recent years because they're shut out. Republicans are very dominant at the state level right now, and so progressive groups - and sometimes with big funders - George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, people like that - will turn to the ballot.

And the other problem with ballot measures in general is that they are single up-or-down, yes-or-no issues. And so in the legislative process, the lawmakers can decide, well, we'd like to have more money for education, but we have so much money we have to spend on Medicaid; we can't afford it. Whereas, voters can just say, we want more money for education, and, oh, by the way, cut our taxes.

SIEGEL: When a state legislature wants to undo the effect of a ballot initiative, is it always just as straightforward as passing a bill? In Arizona where voters approved a minimum wage increase, there's litigation. Was that lawsuit filed in coordination with the legislature?

GREENBLATT: Yes, it was. I mean the House speaker there had considered filing his own lawsuit, and in the end, it was the state chamber of commerce. But the House speaker, the state Senate president and the governor have all signed on with amicus briefs. So in some states, there are protections. In Alaska and Wyoming, for example, voter-approved laws cannot be repealed for at least two years, and in other states - Arkansas and Nebraska - you have to have a two-thirds vote in legislature to overturn. In California, voter-initiated laws are pretty much sacrosanct.

And I think what's going to happen now is - I think it's 18 of the 24 states that allow ballot initiatives allow voters to create not just statute but amendments to the Constitution, and that might be the strategy that they take. That would be much harder for the lawmakers to overturn.

SIEGEL: And in many states, the will of the voters on that constitutional amendment or that proposed law - that's it? If it wins by a majority, it's law. It's an amendment.

GREENBLATT: Well, that's right. So Florida, for example, only has constitutional amendments. So that's why - oh, gosh, it was about 10 years ago. They had a constitutional amendment to regulate the size of the pens that pregnant pigs could be put into. That is part of the Florida State Constitution.

SIEGEL: The pigs are protected by the Florida State Constitution.

GREENBLATT: That's right.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) That's very good. Alan Greenblatt, thanks for talking with us.

GREENBLATT: Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: Alan Greenblatt is a staff writer at Governing Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR SONG, "CAN IT ALL BE SO SIMPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.