Leading Voice on Referendum
Legislative Column from New York State Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb (R,I,C-Canandaigua)
There is little doubt that the 2011 Legislative Session will be remembered for its many historic accomplishments, most notably the enactment of an on-time State Budget that closed New York’s $10 billion budget deficit and took some first steps toward rightsizing the size, cost and reach of state government. All of these successes are important legislative priorities that I have long fought for.
STILL NEEDED: REAL REFORM OF HOW ALBANY DOES THE PEOPLE’S BUSINESS
However, in the area of reforming how Albany does the people’s business – in particular, making our state government more transparent, accountable and responsive to the taxpayers it serves – much more needs to be accomplished. The fact of the matter is that there are not nearly enough opportunities for citizens to have their voices heard on important issues of public policy. Special interests, lobbyists and political insiders still hold too much sway and wield too much influence over Albany and the legislative process. Enactment of initiative and referendum could change all that, effectively breaking up Albany’s legislative logjam, diminishing the power of entrenched special interests and giving New Yorkers a greater say in our democracy and the laws enacted by the state Legislature.
EMPOWER CITIZENS THROUGH INITIATIVE
Initiative and referendum empower citizens to have their voices and views heard on important matters ranging from delivering property tax relief to capping government spending – and just about every issue in between. Initiative and referendum are among the purest forms of “direct democracy” or “pure democracy,” as they provide citizens an opportunity to do an end-run around legislative gridlock and pointless political bickering to bring up issues for direct consideration by fellow voters.
Tools such as initiative and referendum are especially needed here in New York State where certain issues such as enacting a state spending cap, banning unfunded mandates, freezing the municipal share of local Medicaid costs and establishing an independent Legislative Redistricting Commission are continually held up in Albany, year after year, session after session. Initiative and referendum would effectively move these issues out of Albany’s backrooms and onto statewide ballots, so all voters could finally have their say. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about?
27 STATES HAVE SOME
According to the independent, non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an “initiative” is a process that allows citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes (or constitutional amendments in certain states) directly on the ballot. The NCSL defines a “referendum” as a measure appearing on the ballot. There are two main forms of referenda: “legislative referendum” – where the Legislature refers a measure to voters for their approval – and “popular referendum” – where a measure appears on the ballot because of a voter petition drive. All told, 27 states allow for some form of initiative, referendum, or both, so voters can engage in direct democracy.
Unfortunately, New York does not provide either of these tools for its citizens, which I believe is to our democracy’s detriment. To remedy this, I introduced legislation – Assembly Bill A.6501 – to establish an initiative and referendum process in New York so voters could bring issues to the state Legislature and other voters for consideration.
Under the legislation I sponsored, an initiative or referendum proposal can be brought to the state Attorney General with the signature of 250 voters, and the Attorney General is authorized to prepare a petition to comply with technical requirements. The petition would then be circulated for signature by six percent of voters who voted for governor in the last gubernatorial election (approximately 280,000 signatures), if the proposal amends a state statute. If the proposal amends the State Constitution, eight percent of such voters (approximately 372,000 signatures) are required. The proposal is then submitted to the state Legislature for consideration and, if not passed within six months after receipt from the Secretary of State, the measure would be submitted to voters at the next general election, provided a following petition is circulated and receives the required number of signatures.
2012: TIME FOR
Recent surveys have indicated that a majority of New Yorkers would like a greater level of involvement in pursuing matters of public policy for legislative passage. In the 27 states that have either initiative, referendum, or both, these tools have proven highly successful in providing citizens an alternative means of addressing public opinion and breaking through years of legislative gridlock. The legislation I introduced would empower voters to voice their opinions in a direct manner and, in so doing, make government more responsive and accountable to the people.
We can build on the successes of 2011 by making initiative and referendum part of our state’s civic process. Engaging more New Yorkers with their state government and giving people a greater say in the public policies Albany pursues are excellent ideas whose time has come. Enactment of initiative and referendum in 2012 would be a win-win for the causes of democracy and good government in New York!
A Project of the Howard Samuels New York Policy Center
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