The following blog post was co-authored by R Street Western Region Director Steven Greenhut.

Colorado and California are among the states most accustomed to direct democracy: the initiative, the referendum and the recall process. Both states’ systems date back to 1912, in the heart of the Progressive Era, when politicians championed these electoral reforms as a means to rein in the power of the railroads and robber barons.

Coloradans got off to a wild start, with 32 measure on that early ballot. Voters rejected 23 of them. In California, voters rejected six of eight of the measures placed on the ballot in 1912. In this year’s general election, Coloradans consider nine measures and Californians consider 17. In both states, they include many significant matters, which leads to the question that direct democracy’s critics raise during every election cycle: Is the ballot box the right place to decide so many of these complex and important matters?

The American system of government is decidedly non-direct in its approach, with three branches of government that often ploddingly sort through the details. In direct democracy, critics argue, it’s more a free-for-all. Ad campaigns sponsored by companies and special interests who will either benefit from or be hurt by such measures often drive the decision-making. It’s a far cry from the deliberative process our founders envisioned.

In California, legislators regularly propose measures to make it tougher to qualify initiatives for the ballot. That has been common as the Democratic Party has consolidated its power and is increasingly leery of efforts to circumvent the Capitol. In Colorado, where divided government has more often than not become the norm, the initiative process is increasingly being used to bypass the state Legislature when consensus between the two parties has proven elusive. Colorado increasingly is becoming a petri dish for fairly radical measures that would be better served through the legislative process.

The early Progressives were right to give the people a tool to bypass a legislature that easily becomes beholden to special interests, but special interests now have the power to control the initiative process, as well. There are plenty of examples of destructive “ballot-box budgeting” – that is, voters approving financial measures that, for example, may lock the state’s budget into an unsustainable spending formula.

It’s particularly problematic for special interests to use the citizen initiative process to grab their share of public loot through a state constitution. It’s an abuse of the system, which should be used mainly to make fundamental reforms to the structure and limitations on government that belong in state constitutions.

This year, one of the ballot measures Colorado voters will be asked to consider is being promoted by supporters as “Raise the Bar.” Amendment 71 would require grassroots citizens’ groups to demonstrate a level of support from across the state in order to qualify matters for the ballot. The measure also increases the vote required to amend the constitution to 55 percent, instead of a simple majority. It’s ironic – using an initiative to rein in the power of initiatives.

In both Colorado and California this November, tobacco-tax-related constitutional amendments are good examples of measures that don’t belong in the state constitution and should be handled in the legislature.

For instance, Colorado’s Amendment 72 would raise taxes on each pack of cigarettes from 84 cents to $2.59, while also taxing other tobacco products for up to 62 percent of the purchase price. Especially problematic is the way Amendment 72 directs the estimated $315 million in new annual tax money for a litany of unspecified programs and grants. Medical research, prevention, health clinics in underserved areas and veterans’ services may all be worthy causes, but use of these funds is not well-defined in the measure and may or may not be related to reducing tobacco use.

Amendment 72 effectively circumvents the normal appropriations process, in which lawmakers and state agencies have to balance competing needs for schools, roads and bridges, health care and other government programs and priorities that do the most good within the constraints of a balanced budget.

In California, Proposition 56 not only raises taxes on cigarettes by $2 a pack, but raises the tax by an equivalent level on other tobacco and nicotine products, including e-cigarettes. From a “direct democracy” standpoint, Proposition 56 also is a misuse of the process. The main goal appears to be finding new dollars to fund the state’s Medi-Cal system, which provides health care to low-income Californians. The measure is backed by health insurance companies and others who would directly benefit from the new tax dollars.

We would never advocate rules that make it unduly difficult to qualify such initiatives from the ballot. We would, however, urge voters to resist the temptation to support such obvious efforts by interest groups to grab taxpayer dollars through the ballot box and to hard-wire revenue streams on specific products into the state constitution.

Photo by Alexandru Nika

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