SADOW: Louisiana Needs A Well-Defined Initiative Process

An initiative process isn’t a bad thing. Yet HB 165 by Democrat state Rep. Mandie Landry that would introduce this tool of direct democracy doesn’t get that job done and needs significant improvement to merit its passage.

The bill would add to the Constitution an initiative procedure to allow a popular vote to pass a law, repeal a law, or amend the Constitution. Such an idea works well when a sufficient mass of the public desires one of these things, as the Legislature may find itself pressured by special interests to keep things from entering code. After all, even a well-funded special interest will find it much easier to exert pressure on just 144 legislators rather than a couple of million voters.

But problematically, Landry’s bill doesn’t define these parameters and leaves these in the hands of the Legislature. If going to the trouble of amending the Constitution, exactitude is necessary. A review of the states that allow for an initiative process shows about half do so, and of those for altering statute the median is 10 percent of votes cast for governor in the previous election. Most also have geographic requirements that ensure at least some broad-based assent across their states.

At the very least, the bill should specify a minimum proportion of the electorate to put something in front of voters for both a statute and changing the constitution (whether for each implementation or retraction). Leaving it to the Legislature to provide such parameters likely would result in too restrictive ones, to safeguard its status as gatekeeper of promulgating a legal code.

These strictures should not be heavy-handed, but at the same time not trivial to prevent frivolity from going before voters. A standard for signatures of 15 percent of the vote in the last general election for governor, president, or senator, whichever is most recent, should suffice for statute (insertion or repeal) with a minimum of 10 percent in each congressional district, and for an amendment 20 percent statewide with a minimum of 15 percent per congressional district.

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These, of course, only put on the ballot a matter for statute, amendment, or repeal of either. Any bill also should in the constitutional amendment specific a double majority for enactment; i.e. a simple majority of those voting for passage but also that the entire electorate voting on the measure comprise at least half of all registered voters. This ensures substantial citizen participation in the process.

Adding referendum power, or citizen approval of a legislative action beyond an amendment (Louisiana’s amendment process essentially is a referendum) also is accomplished by such standards. These would add by popular discretion review of laws passed. The only thing needing elaboration and elucidation by the Legislature would be exact procedures for petitioning, verification, etc. as the amendment also should specify a 180-day gathering period for signatures and its ratification attempt at the next regular statewide election after its validation.

Citizens should be able to circumvent a recalcitrant Legislature in proposing laws or amendments or wiping either off the books. At the same time, such a power cannot advantage narrow special interests. A constitutional amendment adhering to the above stipulations fulfills both necessities.

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