March 01, 2001
H. 266, introduced by Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) and 49 co-sponsors
The purpose of this bill is to create an indirect, advisory citizen initiative process, through which a popular vote on a public issue in a general election would require the ensuing general assembly to vote on that issue.
The initiative idea, along with referendum and recall, was part of the political reforms urged by the Western progressive movement starting in the early 1900s. The point of all three was to give the people an expanded voice in governing. The initiative allows citizens to put a question on a general election ballot. The referendum requires legislation enacted by a legislature to be put on a ballot for approval before taking effect. Recall puts the question of a public official's continuation in office on the ballot for citizen approval or rejection.
About half the states have some form of citizen initiative. A direct initiative, as in California and Oregon, allows citizen groups to petition a question onto a ballot. If the voters approve in the election, the proposal becomes law. The legislature plays no role in the process. An indirect initiative, as in Massachusetts and Maine, petitions the legislature to enact specified legislation, or requires a referendum vote on legislation already enacted.
The Vermont constitution requires a referendum vote for the adoption of constitutional amendments. The constitution does not allow a direct initiative process. It requires that laws be enacted or amended only by the legislature. It does, however, allow an indirect initiative where the voters advise the legislature of their views on a proposal, and require the legislature to vote on that proposal. This is the indirect, advisory initiative.
The first proposal for creating an indirect, advisory citizen initiative was introduced in Vermont in 1989 (S.78). The same bill reappeared in 1991 (S. 34)and 1997 (H. 194). These bills were never given a committee hearing. The present bill is a revised version of the 1997 bill.
The present Citizen Initiative bill has these features: Sponsorship: a group of 2000 voters may file an initiative proposition and a concise description thereof with the Secretary of State in the month of October, a year before the general election.. The secretary of state then revises the description for clarity and impartiality.
Town Meeting Approval: the sponsors then must petition the question of whether a proposal can appear on the November ballot onto the warnings of more than half of the March town meetings. Five percent of each town's voters must sign the petition. Only if the voters of at least 124 town meetings approve the question can the process go forward. General Election approval: If the proposal crosses that hurdle, it then becomes a ballot question for the following November's general election.
Legislative action: If the voters approve the proposal, the simultaneously elected House must take up and vote upon the proposal, by roll call, within 20 legislative days. The bill, like all legislation, is subject to amendment; the version eventually voted on might not be exactly the version proposed by the sponsoring group. If the bill is approved, it goes to the Senate for similar action, and then to the Governor for approval or veto.
Analysis: The great merit of the Citizen Initiative is that it gives the citizens the power to require democratically that their legislature act on a popular proposal, even a "hot potato" issue that many legislators might prefer to avoid. Once qualified for the ballot, the proposal would have been the subject of statewide debate and campaigning for eight months prior to the general election, and two more months prior to coming to a vote in the legislature. By that time every legislator would be well versed in the arguments pro and con. Moreover, each member of the legislature would know how his or her voters voted on the proposal only eight weeks before its consideration by the legislature.
The citizen initiative is ideologically neutral. It could be used to require legislative action on issues as diverse as term limits, death penalty, marijuana legalization, civil unions, tax and spending limitations, flag protection, or decommissioning Vermont Yankee. The indirect advisory initiative avoids the defects of the California-style direct initiative. That process can and does result in poorly thought out proposals - or even two contradictory proposals on the same subject - being enacted into law on election day, by majorities that may have had little opportunity to think the proposal through in the heat of a general election campaign.
Instead of allowing some 13,000 voters to petition a proposal onto the ballot, H. 266 requires the sponsors to secure the approval of 124 town meetings even to put the question to the general election voters. This "small town veto" provision was apparently devised to prevent an initiative favored by a great majority of voters in one part of the state (e.g., Burlington) but unpopular elsewhere. Securing approval in 124 towns will prove to be an almost impossible task. The window for filing the proposal, opening for a month a year before the election, will make it impossible for sponsors to initiate the process in response to a court decision or legislative enactment closer to the election. (For instance, controversial measures like Act 60, civil unions, and the heavy cutting bill would have been unreachable through the initiative for over two years.) If the legislature believes in popular democracy enough to enact even an indirect, advisory citizen initiative, it should return to the original bill: eliminate the "small town veto" and allow a sponsoring group of 25, starting as late as May and filing 13,000 signatures by September 1, to qualify a proposal for the November ballot.