Empower the People
By Representative Erik Paulsen and Representative Gene Pelowski
Following the 2004 legislative session, the citizens of Minnesota voiced their concerns. They were tired of partisan political bickering, closed door negotiations and hidden special interest agendas. They sent a message to lawmakers: Get your work done. Imagine what that message would be if Minnesotans had the option for Initiative and Referendum (I&R): Get your work done or we'll get it done for you.
The right of voters to initiate laws is a core basic principle of democracy. I&R makes sure that the represented are truly represented. It allows people to enact reforms supported by the people when the government is unwilling or unable to act. We have introduced bipartisan legislation that, if passed by both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature, will empower voters with the right to vote on a constitutional amendment for I&R.
I&R holds lawmakers accountable to their bosses, the citizens of Minnesota. If the Minnesota Legislature fails to act on issues that matter to voters, citizens could initiate their own measure and, if it garners enough widespread support, place that measure on the general election ballot. Likewise, if legislation passes that citizens find inappropriate, they are given an outlet to repeal a bad law.
Minnesotans deserve more than to sit on the sidelines when it comes to public policymaking. The power of government can easily be centralized by well-funded special interest groups and entrenched lawmakers. I&R counterbalances the concentration of power and pressure from special interests or political partners. It informs, empowers and engages Minnesota voters in the democratic process.
Critics of this reform legislation point to well-funded special interest groups, selective populations and uninformed voters as concerns. We counter these statements with the ABCs of initiative and referendum: Accountability, Balance and Credit.
Accountability: Critics of this legislation say that the process can be influenced by special interests. Perhaps those same critics should take a close look at how a bill becomes a law today. Special interests have the time and money to lobby lawmakers. This level of power is not bestowed to the average citizen who wants to fight for reform that represents the majority and not a select organization or cause. Citizen initiatives are the one way to hold lawmakers accountable and prevent special interest gridlock from overtaking democracy. Interestingly, citizens in some states have used I&R to enact campaign finance reform.
Balance: The bill before the Minnesota Legislature gives Minnesota one of the toughest distribution requirements in the country. Unlike most states with a citizen initiative process, Minnesotans would have to gain support from every region of the state - urban, suburban and rural. Any initiative would have to collect significant petition signatures from voters in six of eight congressional districts in order to place a measure on the general election ballot. This ensures that any ballot measure to even be considered by voters would have widespread support. Based on the history in other states, this strict standard means only one or perhaps two initiatives would make it to the ballot each year.
Credit: Another concern is that voters are not qualified to make these decisions. This statement demonstrates the arrogance of entrenched government. Give voters credit. If we trust them to elect us, which they did in record numbers last year, we should trust them to make wise decisions on ballot initiatives and referndums at the polls.
I&R neutralizes the power of special interest, decentralizes the concentration of government power, increases the opportunity for a participatory democracy and stimulates public involvement in the political process. Voter turnout in these states have been 5 percent to 7 percent higher than states without I&R.
Minnesota needs to join the 24 states in the nation and 80 of its own cities that already allow their citizens to check government power through I&R. Our bill has received hearings and bipartisan support in the Minnesota House of Representatives and is supported by Governor Pawlenty.
Let's trust the people and provide them with the chance to be able to directly speak on the major issues of the day. It is time to make government more responsive and accountable by bringing I&R ballot reform to Minnesota.
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie) and Rep. Gene Pelowski (D-Winona) are authors of HF820, initiative and referendum.