Time for state to adopt citizen initiatives

After seeing year after year go by without more progressive ideas coming out of our Legislature (e.g., failing to fund completion of I-49), I have come to the conclusion that it is time for Louisiana to adopt citizen approved initiatives.

Part of the law of 24 states, citizen initiatives are a form of direct democracy. Citizen initiatives allow citizens to bypass the Legislature and directly place proposed statutes or constitutional amendments on the ballot for citizen adoption or rejection. With citizen initiatives, the people do not have to rely on the Legislature to change or create a law. Imagine an approved citizen initiative which directed appropriate funding for I-49 and ordered the Louisiana Department of Transportation to complete it by 2010.

The citizen initiative begins by a citizen or group filing a proposal with a state official (usually the state attorney general) for wording approval and compliance with the law. The state official reviews the proposal and then either approves it or asks for changes before approval.

After approval, the person or group circulates the proposal via a petition, collecting a certain number of signatures to have the proposal placed on the ballot. Once enough signatures are obtained, the proposal is then submitted to another state official (usually the secretary of state) for placement on the ballot. The entire citizenry then votes to either approve the proposal or reject it.

Citizen-approved initiatives contain numerous benefits. First, they help citizens overcome big money from special interests. In the book the "Populist Paradox," professor Liz Gerber, from the University of Michigan, found that with citizen initiatives money played a minor role in creating a new law or changing a law.

Since legislators are too often influenced by well-financed special interest groups, citizen initiatives allow the people to work around the problem of legislators being unwilling or unable to place initiatives on the ballot which are to the benefit of the greater good, but may be a problem for certain special interest groups.

Second, studies have shown that citizen initiatives result in better tax policies in those states that have adopted them. With voters acting as a check and balance on the Legislature, the Legislature must use fiscal restraint in its tax-and-spending proposals or else the citizen initiative can be used to reverse poor legislative financial decision making.

Finally, citizen initiatives usually result in higher voter turnout because through the circulation of the petition to get a proposal on the ballot, it creates more interest in the citizenry to get involved early in the political process. In effect, the average person becomes directly involved in the lawmaking process. When this process occurs close to home, it becomes more personal to those people who find the lawmaking occurring in the state capital to be so foreign.

With all of these benefits, it is a surprise that Louisiana has not adopted citizen initiatives. Unfortunately, some legislators in the past have seen citizen initiatives as a threat to their monopoly on power and they are unwilling to share the power with the people. That has occurred right here in Louisiana when attempts have been made to approve citizen initiatives.

The last effort to approve a citizen initiative occurred in 1999 when Gov. Mike Foster tried to get one passed. The Legislature thwarted his efforts and rejected the legislation.

Now that 10 years have passed and many of the old legislators have left office through term limits, perhaps this is a good time to try approval of citizen initiatives again. In order for us to have this option, we need the Legislature to place this on the ballot for citizen approval. As we near a new legislative session next month, this would be a great time to call your legislator and tell them to sponsor a bill to approve citizen initiatives.

While citizen initiatives may not be a cure-all for what has kept our state from reaching its full potential over the years, the option of their use may be enough to put pressure on the Legislature to act more progressively in moving our state forward. If the Legislature fails to act, the people will have the option to act for them.

Checks and balances are the backbone of a democracy and with a citizen initiative acting as a check and balance on legislative authority, it would help our Legislature remember that it needs to always do what is right for the people of our great state.

Scott Wolf, of Shreveport, is a member of The Times Community Board.