After just a day and a half of hearings, the Initiative and Referendum Task Force has already asked the Legislative Research Council to draft at least seven bills. This list of bill draft requests, posted on the committee website, may not be all of the draft requests; at Wednesday’s meeting, LRC attorney Wenzel Cummings said he would keep legislator requests for bill drafts confidential if they wished.
First, I want to note that the fact that we already have seven proposals for changes indicates that the task force is jumping its gun. Its enacting legislation, House Bill 1141, gives the committee this mandate:
The task force established pursuant to this Act shall study and evaluate the voter constitutional amendment, initiative and referendum process, legislation proposed during the Ninety-second Legislative Session of the South Dakota Legislature relating to the voter constitutional amendment, initiative and referendum process, and other proposals as they relate to the voter constitutional amendment, initiative and referendum process in South Dakota [2017 HB 1141, Section 2].
Committee chair Dr. Emily Wanless reads that passage as a mandate to conduct “a thorough review of the policies, procedures and regulations surrounding the uses of initiatives and referendums and where needed, suggest any changes that might be warranted.” We can’t get to “where needed” until we conduct that “thorough review” of the status quo. Task force members appear to have laid the following proposals for changes on Day One, before any “thorough review” of current law and practice could be completed. If we do not fully understand how well the state enforces existing safeguards in ballot measure petitioning and campaign finance, we cannot responsibly gauge how well the state would implement any new proposals.
Under that general critique, let us race ahead with the task force and evaluate each of the seven published bill draft requests:
1. Allow for fifteen working days on LRC Review & Comment for submitted ballot measures.
I’m fine with this measure, under one condition: every additional day LRC gets must come out of the 60 days the Attorney General gets to review initiatives. We should not accept any provision that further delays the ability of ballot question sponsors to hit the streets with their petitions.
2. Number of days for LRC Review & Comment based on number of words in the ballot measure.
No. Equating word count with complexity misses many possibilities. For instance, an initiative to assign all regulatory authority over septic tanks and other rural wastewater systems not currently governed by municipal governments would be relatively straightforward. However, the text of such a measure would have to include several pages of text striking the 62 sections of SDCL Chapter 34A-5.
Conversely, one could offer a one-sentence initiative like last year’s IM23—”Notwithstanding any other provisions of law, an organization, corporate or nonprofit, has the right to charge a fee for any service provided by the organization”—which triggers all sorts of complexity as LRC may need to check all the other provisions of law that would not withstand this terse change.
We make no such provision for wordier bills in the Legislature. Committees, chambers, and the Governor all get the same amount of time to clear each bill, long or short. We should not impose this nitpickery on ballot measures, either.
3. Exemption from fifteen-day requirement for LRC for ballot measures submitted during Legislative Session.
I understand the time crunch this proposal seeks to solve. Session is a bad time for a citizen to drop by the Capitol and ask an LRC staffer to add another task to his or her plate. But welcome to public service. The Legislature does not get to give itself precedence over the general public in accessing public resources. After all, the Legislative Research Council exists to serve all citizen legislators, including the vast majority of us citizens who do not get per diems and cushy desks in the Capitol but who nonetheless constitutionally reserve to ourselves the right to legislate by initiative and referendum. Elected legislators can ask LRC for service at any time; all citizens deserve the same service.
If there is a practical crunch on LRC staff availability to review citizen proposals, we should resolve that crunch in ways that do not further restrict the ability of citizens to exercise their constitutional rights. Instead of further delaying initiatives, I recommend the following practical solutions:
- Increase funding for LRC to hire more staff during Session and/or create a special division dedicated to initiatives and service for the general public.
- Move the deadline for submitting initiative petitions from November of the year before the election to July 1 of the year of the election. That gives petitioners eight more months to collect signatures, thus easing the time crunch for both LRC and petitioners.
4. LRC to provide, in addition to style and form, guidance for “efficacy” of the ballot measure’s policy objective.
LRC should provide the same service to all citizen legislators, be they elected or be they initiators. If this advice to elected legislators includes guidance on policy “efficacy,” then yes, by all means, provide that advice to initiative sponsors as well.
5. Limit on number of ballot measures that may appear on a ballot.
Bonk. We do not limit the number of bills legislators can propose. The Governor does not limit the number of bills the Legislature can send to his desk. The state does not limit the number of political parties or independent candidates who can access the ballot. If citizens want to vote on zero, five, ten, or a hundred measures, that’s citizens’ business. Limiting the number of measures on the ballot turns initiative and referendum into a race of the richest players to crowd the ballot and box out low-budget grassroots activists.
6. Provide statutory authority for state Board of Elections to determine size of ballot.
The Board of Elections already has statutory authority to determine the “form and color of ballots” [SDCL 12-1-9(2)]. If this proposal recognizes a need to accommodate more measures or more information about each measure, let’s consider it. But if this measure envisions restricting ballot space and thus ballot measures, forget it.
7. Independent Citizen Review panels for ballot measures.
Rob Timm of the Chiesman Center for Democracy told the I&R Task Force about this idea in his testimony Wednesday among his recommendations for giving the public more unbiased information about ballot measures:
- Holding numerous facilitated town hall discussions throughout the state to review one or more key ballot initiatives, or maybe just constitutional measures – allowing not only sponsors and opponents to provide arguments but also creating opportunities for the general public to ask questions.
- Take this one step further, and implement a process that is used in Oregon, Arizona, Massachusetts, Colorado and California. These states utilize an independent Citizens Initiative Review® (https:/
/) that engages a randomly selected, demographically balanced “jury” of citizens who take testimony and then deliberate for 2-3 days, drafting a statement highlighting the most fact-based pro and con findings about a measure (usually a constitutional amendment). Which is then placed in the voter guide [Rob Timm, Chiesman Center for Democracy, testimony as prepared for Initiative and Referendum Task Force, 2017.06.22]. healthydemocracy.org/ cir/
Placing ballot measure sponsors and opponents on an equal footing in a formal public process designed to give all voters more information is a splendid idea. But as I cautioned Dana Ferguson, we need to make sure the process is impartial:
Cory Allen Heidelberger, a progressive blogger and referendum and initiative sponsor, said he generally supported the idea of allowing more public input on the proposals, but warned that constraints would be needed to prevent abuse of the public hearings.
“Garbage in, garbage out: the process is only going to be as good as the information put into it,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s not a slanted or manipulatable process” [Dana Ferguson, “Is There a Better Way to Educate Voters on Ballot Measures?” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.06.21].
We also need to make sure that any citizen review/public hearing process does not further delay the petition process or otherwise restrict the ability of citizens to put measures to a vote. Finally, I hesitate to write into public policy anything with a registered trademark. But overall, engaging more citizens in the political process is good…
…and that’s the principle that should guide the Initiative and Referendum Task Force’s review of existing ballot measure statutes as well as their premature rush to propose new laws. Of the above draft bill requests, #3, and #5 raise hurdles to participation. #1, #4, #7, and my counterproposals under #3, if implemented properly, invite more citizen participation.