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In the act of thwarting it, Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran unwittingly illustrated Hawaii’s acute need for the citizen initiative process.
A citizen initiative proposal found its way to the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee that Keith-Agaran chaired in 2016. He killed it without a debate, much less a vote. Then he declined to explain why.
The bill’s sponsors were not surprised. Even ideas that enjoy wide public support are vulnerable to such treatment at the Capitol. In a December Civil Beat poll, 60 percent of voters supported citizen initiative while 18 percent opposed it.
It was reminiscent of what happened to the medical aid in dying bill in 2017. It too had substantial public support, and had passed the Senate overwhelmingly before it was squelched in a House committee without a vote.
That the measure finally was approved earlier this year only goes to show that sometimes, if the political winds are blowing just so, when the backroom dealmaking balances out just right, legislators will deign to give the public what it wants.
That will never happen with citizen initiative. There’s no way the entrenched powers will voluntarily give the people the ability to make public policy on their own.
But once every 10 years, there’s a glimmer of hope that this could change through the calling of a constitutional convention. And this is one of those years.
Even if a convention takes place, there’s no guarantee its delegates would approve a constitutional amendment asking voters to establish the right to statewide citizen initiative. After all, they refused to do so at the last such gathering in 1978.
What is guaranteed is that without a constitutional convention, Hawaii has virtually no chance of joining all the other other western states that already have citizen initiative. Most of those states also give their citizens the power to override new legislation through referendum and to recall state officials who aren’t doing their jobs.
You have to go all the way to Kansas and Texas to find other states that deny their citizens all three of those rights.
This is reason enough to vote “yes” Nov. 6 on the question of holding a constitutional convention.
“We love our rights here and we’re not inclined to give them up.”
That’s how Laurie Roberts, a longtime Phoenix newspaper columnist, describes Arizona residents’ affinity for citizen initiative and referendum.
Like Hawaii, Arizona is dominated by a single political party, in this case the GOP. But unlike Hawaii, Arizona established the rights to citizen initiative, referendum and recall when it became a state in 1912. Months later, its voters approved an initiative giving women the right to vote — eight years before it happened nationwide.
Over the years, Arizona voters have overruled their political leaders by approving citizen initiatives to raise the minimum wage and discourage gerrymandering of legislative districts. An initiative passed many years ago assured a stable level of funding for public education, protecting schools from draconian budget cuts during the Great Recession.
After the Arizona Legislature passed a bill shifting more public education money to private schools through vouchers, petition-gatherers collected enough signatures to give voters a chance this November to overturn the law through the referendum process.
Of late, the initiative and referendum powers have tended to serve progressive causes while the conservatives in charge have tried to undermine them. But that will change, Roberts told Civil Beat.
Arizona Republicans are not as solidly entrenched as Hawaii Democrats, and the evolving demographics almost assure that at some point the GOP will become the minority party there.
When that day comes, “the Republicans will employ their right to initiative,” Roberts said.
The disenfranchised “need some sort of veto power” for when officeholders go too far or do too little, she said. “It’s a big check — and it’s a reminder to them of who’s in charge.”
Citizen initiative is far from a grassroots cure-all. For instance, collecting enough signatures to get measures on the ballot in Arizona almost always requires a lot of money, Roberts said. Opponents in turn often spend a lot more trying to defeat them.
There’s a danger of special interests taking over the process, just as they sometimes take over elected officials.
Some states suffer from what’s been called an “excess of democracy.” California voters have passed a glut of citizen initiatives over the years, sometimes contradicting each other and often leaving legislators hamstrung as to how to implement them all.
“You wouldn’t want to govern on an ongoing basis in this way. It’s too crude a tool,” John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, told Civil Beat in 2016. “But it’s good to have as part of your democracy, for the people to have the option to act directly.”
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in citizen initiative in the states that have it.
In 2016, there were 71 citizen initiatives on state ballots nationwide, the most for at least a decade and more than double the total for 2014, according to Ballotpedia.
It may be a sign of the times nationally.
Partisan polarization is increasing … the geographic self-segregation of like-minded Americans has distorted representation. So has rampant gerrymandering. As a result of both kinds of distortion, many politicians across the country do not necessarily speak with the voice of their constituents, at both the federal and state levels.
The “direct democracy” of citizen initiatives and referendums could be an antidote to voter mistrust in their elected officials, Newkirk wrote.
Hawaii clearly needs to do something to resuscitate citizens’ interest in democracy. Look no further than our consistently low voter turnouts at elections where Democrats — even the politically conservative ones — almost always win.
Our leaders and their financial backers are so comfortable in their incumbency that they seem unable or unwilling to meaningfully engage Hawaii’s overarching problems with energy and ingenuity.
We need a game-changer to get more citizens involved at every level of public life.
This year we can take a step in that direction by approving a constitutional convention.
Then we can push its delegates to empower Hawaii residents with the same rights enjoyed everywhere else in the western United States.
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