Colorado voters will decide in November whether the state should provide universal health care to all its residents at a cost of $25 billion.

Californians will determine if the state should ban plastic single-use carryout bags, and if porn stars should have to wear condoms in their films.

North Dakota will vote on a measure that would require legislators to live in the district they represent, and Arizona will decide if it should increase education funding by $3.5 billion over 10 years.

These proposals — and dozens more across half the country — were put on ballots through a citizen initiative process. Hawaii is the only Western state without this option of direct democracy, but a few state senators here have begun efforts to change that.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to improve police oversight in light of several high-profile scandals involving bad cops over the years.
Politicians in the Capitol have complete control over what statewide measures go on the ballot in Hawaii. A citizen initiative process would change that. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senators Laura Thielen, Russell Ruderman and Maile Shimabukuro introduced a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to establish a citizen initiative process. It would have allowed people to place measures on the ballot if they could collect signatures from at least 10 percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots for governor in the last general election.

There were just over 366,000 votes cast for governor in 2014, so that would mean 36,600 valid signatures of registered voters would have been required.

“The underlying thing we’re trying to address here is when the Legislature refuses to act, there’s nothing the people can do.” — Sen. Laura Thielen

The measure never stood much of a chance this session, given the Legislature’s historic reluctance to pass bills that could undermine its power. Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran killed the bill this week by choosing to not give it a hearing in his Judiciary and Labor Committee; he did not return a message seeking comment.

The bill’s introducers had no delusions about its prospects this session, but they hoped to at least spur a discussion that could create a groundswell of public support in coming years.

“The underlying thing we’re trying to address here is when the Legislature refuses to act, there’s nothing the people can do,” Thielen said.

The initiative process could be transformative for certain chronic issues, she said, such as protecting agricultural lands from development and ensuring the tourism industry’s unbridled growth doesn’t infringe on local residents’ quality of life.

Sen Russell Ruderman editorial board
Sen. Russell Ruderman says the voter initiative process could be used to boost the state’s minimum wage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ruderman identified minimum wage as another area. Even though the Legislature voted in 2014 to increase it from $7.75 to $10.10 an hour by 2018, he said that still means living in “extreme poverty.”

A citizen initiative might raise it faster while encouraging more people to participate in democracy, he said.

“A lot of people feel their vote doesn’t matter,” Ruderman said. “This is a step toward your vote mattering.”

Oregon and California are considering ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $15 over the next few years. Nevada voters started gathering signatures last month to put a measure on the ballot that would increase it to $13 by 2024. Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would bar citizens from using the initiative process to increase the minimum wage.

The initiative process is different in all 24 states that have it, from the number of signatures that must be collected to which governmental entity certifies the ballot question before letting voters decide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most states have a direct process that sends the proposal straight to the ballot. Others, like Ohio and Maine, require the initiative to first go through the legislature.

The initiative process has plenty of supporters and critics.

California Leads By Example

During interviews with politicians, union officials, academics and others, California was cited in equal turns as a model state for the initiative process or an example of how it can go bad.

Supporters love the direct influence California voters have through the many propositions they put forward. Critics point at how a confused electorate creates lasting problems after being manipulated by monied interests.

In the last election, the fate of all eight propositions fell in line with the side that received the most money.

Should public notice be required before insurance companies change their rates? The measure was rejected with a $57 million campaign against it and just over $6 million supporting it, according to Ballotpedia.

A proposition to increase the cap on damages that can be assessed in medical negligence lawsuits was similarly defeated, with almost $58 million donated to groups opposing it.

People upset by the passage of Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative, protest at the California State Capitol in Sacramento in 2008.
People upset by the passage of Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage initiative, protest at the California State Capitol in Sacramento in 2008. Flickr: Kelly B. Huston

“Ballot initiatives have reshaped the lives of California citizens for almost 100 years, yet the initiative process itself has become outmoded, inflexible, confusing, complex, difficult for citizens to use and excessively dominated by money,” according to a 2008 report by the Center for Governmental Studies.

The center reports that donations from special interests totaled $1.3 billion on ballot initiatives from 2000 to 2006. 

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to modernize California’s initiative process.

The changes, which were backed by groups like Common Cause and League of Women Voters, include a requirement that legislative committees hold public hearings on proposed initiatives after 25 percent of the required signatures are collected. It would allow the proposition to be withdrawn prior to the election if a legislative solution can be reached.

In some cases, the initiative process has to be used to reform the initiative process, or even already-approved initiatives.

California voters will see a citizen initiative on the November ballot to repeal a proposition they passed in 1998. The latest measure would again allow for bilingual education in public schools.

Sen Laura Thielen raises questions during carehome discussions. Room 16 Capitol.
Hawaii state Sen. Laura Thielen says a citizen initiative process would give voters an option when the Legislature fails to act. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While eight propositions are already set to be placed on the ballot, the Attorney General’s office has cleared another 72 for circulation, and several others have been publicly proposed.

Pending propositions include legalizing marijuana, repealing the death penalty, lowering the drinking age to 18 and prohibiting public schools from claiming the Holocaust did not happen.

Only 15 to 20 are expected to make the ballot, but that would be the most California has seen since at least 2004.

Steve Maviglio, a Democratic campaign strategist, told the Los Angeles Times that the 2016 voters pamphlet explaining the propositions “is going to look like the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.”

Critics blame citizen initiatives for hamstringing budgets, and even causing massive deficits.

Proposition 13, which voters approved in 1978 to strictly limit property taxes, is arguably the most famous.

“The party in power never wants this. You’re taking away their power, and they don’t like that.” — John Matsusaka, Initiative & Referendum Institute

John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, explored the effect of voter initiatives on the California budget in a 2003 paper.

He found a third of the state’s budget was locked up by initiatives at the time, but that virtually all of the earmarked spending was for education and would have been appropriated by the Legislature even without a mandate. He concluded that voter initiatives “are not a significant obstacle to balancing the budget in California.”

Matsusaka has continued to study the initiative process and how it’s worked. He said the basic issues are the same throughout the country.

Supporters tend to believe legislators don’t always represent their constituents’ interests, so voters need an option to take direct action, he said.

Critics are concerned about whether voters are competent to make laws directly. He said there’s significant research showing that voters are often uninformed about the issues they are deciding.

Why Not Hawaii?

Matsusaka has also seen a common theme in terms of who wants a citizen initiative, and who fights against it. People in power generally do not want to give voters that option, which holds true in the Aloha State.

Hawaii’s territorial Democratic Party passed a resolution in 1907 supporting the initiative process, but Republicans dominated the government at the time and shot down the effort, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute.

Democrats turned against the initiative process when they gained power in the 1950s, and did not include it in the constitution when Hawaii became a state in 1959, according to the institute.

For the most part, only Republican lawmakers have been pushing the concept of citizen initiatives in recent years, including bill one last session that never got a hearing.

“The party in power never wants this,” Matsusaka said. “You’re taking away their power, and they don’t like that.”

Still, in addition to the Democratic effort in the Senate this year, a similar measure was proposed in the House by Reps. Joy San Buenaventura and Kaniela Ing. It met the same fate.

The Initiative and Referendum Institute polled every state for its 1999-2000 almanac to see if voters would like to have the initiative or not. In Hawaii, Matsusaka noted that 62 percent said yes, and 20 percent said no.

“The fact that Hawaii doesn’t have it has nothing to do with what the people want,” Matsusaka said.

Rep Scott Saiki gestures during press conference with Representatives. 15 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hawaii state Rep. Scott Saiki says the current system gives residents an option to press an issue through the legislative process or a Constitutional Convention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The vast majority of Western states gained the initiative process in the early 1900s during the progressive era. The “mood changed” with World War I and the Great Depression, Matsusaka said, and so ended the push to establish an initiative process in other states.

Of the 24 states that have the initiative process, 18 got it before 1920. Alaska, the second youngest state, adopted the initiative process as part of its founding constitution. Mississippi was the last state to add it, doing so in 1992.

Part of the reason some believe Hawaii lacks an initiative process has been the lack of a vocal advocate.

“No one is out there calling for it,” Ruderman said.

The late Democratic state Sen. Mary Jane McMurdo championed the issue for years at the state and county levels in Hawaii.

She led a campaign in the early 1980s to allow Honolulu voters to pass ordinances by initiative instead of only charter amendments. Voters approved the measure in 1982 by a 55 percent margin over the objection of labor unions.

McMurdo used the new power to lead a drive for an initiative ordinance to save a block of moderate-income Honolulu apartments that were slated for destruction by high-rise builders, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute. Voters approved this measure in 1984.

She also successfully used the initiative process to restrict development at Sandy Beach.

McMurdo was never able to get the Legislature to establish a statewide initiative process, but she did demonstrate its effectiveness at the county level. Kauai, Maui and Hawaii counties also have a citizen initiative process.

Hawaii House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said the avenues currently available to engage in the lawmaking process are sufficient — the Legislature and constitutional conventions.

The House has been introducing more than 1,000 bills a year, he said, and the Legislature also has the ability to propose constitutional amendments to be placed on the ballot for voters to approve.

“A lot of people feel their vote doesn’t matter. This is a step toward your vote mattering.” — Sen. Russell Ruderman

And by law, every 10 years at a minimum, voters are asked whether they want to hold a Constitutional Convention, or “ConCon.”

The last time that happened was 1978. The initiative process was taken up by the delegates, but it was defeated.

Even when term limits and other issues are used as the rallying cry, Saiki said, voters generally decide not to hold a constitutional convention.

Voters rejected the ConCon question in 2008 following successful campaigns against it by Democratic Party leaders and labor unions.

Then-Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican, wrote an op-ed in Honolulu Magazine in August 2008 that called on voters to support holding a constitutional convention.

“Our citizens have a choice: maintain the status quo or vote for real change,” he said. “We must not fear ourselves.”

Then-Sen. Gary Hooser, majority leader at the time, penned a piece in opposition. He said there was no urgent need to change the constitution, which is intended to be an enduring document, and that the money to hold one could be better spent elsewhere.

“We run too great a risk of our state constitution suffering lasting damage at the hands of special interests,” Hooser said.

Another Chance In Two Years

The next time voters will be asked about holding a ConCon will be in 2018.

Thielen and Ruderman said if they are unsuccessful in getting their initiative bill passed in the Legislature, a constitutional convention is all that’s left.

“Why should we be afraid?” Thielen said. “I know we’re a representative government, but that has to be tempered with some form of direct democracy.”

Both lack the power they once held in the Senate after being sidelined in a late-session reorganization last year. The Senate faction that took over and installed Ron Kouchi as president stripped them of their positions as committee chairs, which limits their ability to advance legislation.

Hawaii’s lack of a citizen initiative process fits into the concept of the state having a very centralized democracy, Saiki said.

The state school system illustrates that point, having just one school district run by a single Board of Education out of Honolulu.

Voters come in and out of booths at Aina Haina Elementary School Primary Day August 9, 2014
Voters at Aina Haina Elementary School. Proponents of the citizen initiative process say it can increase voter turnout and get more people directly involved in public issues. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“In concept, it does sound good,” Saiki said of the citizen initiative process. “But in reality and in practice, I’m not sure what the real effects would be.”

After serving in the House since 1996, he said he’s seen a number of controversial issues move through the Legislature — sometimes year after year.

“It is hard to please everyone in those situations, but I do feel the Legislature is the best place to address the competing concerns and interests,” Saiki said. “The general question is how do you make decisions, and are they procedurally and substantively correct.

“Because the Legislature is a representative form of government, information is centralized and competing interests are raised,” he said. “From that, the Legislature can make reasoned decisions based on the information that’s before them.”

Saiki questioned what would happen if gay marriage had been put on the ballot instead of the Legislature taking the issue up, as it did in 2013 during an intense special session. The bill passed as hundreds of people protested outside the Capitol.

“I’m pretty sure it would have been defeated,” he said.

“I do feel the Legislature is the best place to address the competing concerns and interests.” — Rep. Scott Saiki

Matsusaka of the Initiative and Referendum Insitute said the initiative process has the power to dislodge issues that have been stuck in the Legislature, but also to force policymakers to consider issues that might have been cast aside because they were perceived to be coming from a “zany, 1 percent group.”

Many times that’s indeed the case, he said, but as states like Washington and Colorado have shown in recent elections it’s not always true — legalizing recreational marijuana being a prime example.

Lawmakers are not totally averse to hot topics, Matsusaka said, pointing at abortion rights and gun control for instance. But he said they can develop a “blind spot.”

He considers the initiative process to be like a “safety valve.”

“You wouldn’t want to govern on an ongoing basis in this way. It’s too crude a tool,” he said. “But it’s good to have as part of your democracy, for the people to have the option to act directly.”

Ruderman said the measure he co-introduced took a cautious approach.

The legislation offered several safeguards, such as prohibiting any measure that named an individual to hold any office or identified any private corporation to perform any function or to have any power or duty.

The bill also would have banned initiative measures that pertained to a specific state budget item or that could have potentially compromised public health or safety. And the Legislature could have repealed any initiative constitutional amendment with a two-thirds vote after it had been in effect for at least five years.

“We’re open to the discussion,” Thielen said. “The important thing is to get it moving forward. This is just a starting point.”

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