The Legislature’s task force on initiative and referendum wrapped up its work on Friday by taking the last good proposal it had, the Citizen Initiative Review Commission (CIRC), and watering it down to do less work to educate the public about ballot measures than I did in the 2016 election cycle.
The draft bill presented at the beginning of Friday’s task force teleconference consisted of eight sections:
- Empanel eleven people, including two to four legislators, to review initiatives.
- Assign the Secretary of State to help the CIRC.
- For each initiative, require CIRC to hold one hearing in Pierre and compose a 300-word-maximum summary.
- Appoint CIRC subcommittees to compose Pro/Con statements for each initiative.
- Post CIRC summaries, Pro/Con statements, and other initiative-related docs online.
- Mail CIRC summaries, Pro/Con statements, and initiative text to every registered voter.
- Fund CIRC with general fund appropriations and private donations.
- Strike Secretary of State’s obligation to include initiatives in her ballot question pamphlet, but maintain her duty to distribute information about referred laws.
According to Bob Mercer, the task force struck Sections 4 through 8. They preserved a bit of Section 5 by tacking on a sentence requiring that CIRC summaries be posted on the Secretary of State’s website. Task force member Linda Lea Viken voted for this reduced version, but she said, “This is like the tail. The dog has left the room.” As the draft stands now, the final work product of the CIRC will offer voters less substantive information about initiatives than I offered in my half-hour speech to the Brown County Democratic Forum in February 2016. By dropping its mailer plan, the task force envisions the taxpayer-funded CIRC making less effort to publicize its initiative information than I did in handing out over 15,000 cards with the titles of all ten 2016 ballot measures and a link to my online ballot measure information. The task force dropped the requirement to include the CIRC minutes on the Secretary of State’s website, so there’s not even a guarantee that the testimony solicited by at the CIRC hearing will be made available to all voters throughout the election season.
The task force did nudge the draft language from “a” hearing to “at least one,” but that small change does not guarantee more than one public hearing anywhere other than Pierre. Section 1 keeps the odious presence of two to four legislators, who have no business sticking their nose into the citizens’ legislative process that is meant to check legislators’ neglect of important issues and abuse of power. The task force also appears to have left in place Section 1’s allowance of up to six members of the same party on the CIRC, meaning one party could skew the hearings and initiative summaries. The approved draft also leaves referred laws out of the CIRC hearing process, leaving voters less informed about that important set of ballot questions.
The Initiative & Referendum Task Force had a chance to improve citizen democracy and protect ballot measures from Legislative interference. Instead, the task force watered down the robust and active ballot measure education ideas proposed by Rob Timm of the Chiesman Center for Democracy at their opening hearing in June and made a passel of other recommendations that are mostly detrimental to the people’s ability to propose, petition, and pass laws.
The task force’s recommendations pass now to the Legislature, where Republican leaders will surely do their darnedest to make those recommendations even worse. Get ready to call your legislators, small-d democrats, and defend initiative and referendum from our overreaching, power-hungry Legislature!