How Voters in Other States Leash Their Politicians

August 14, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- While voters in high-tax Maryland stand by helplessly and await the election this fall of a new generation of free spenders, disgusted residents of other states, especially in the West, have gained a measure of control over their fiscal future.

They've done this, primarily, through the ballot initiative. This procedure, not available to Maryland voters under the present state constitution, allows pressing questions of public policy to be placed on referendum without the assent of incumbent elected officials.

In 1992, Washington state voters used the ballot initiative to tie growth in state spending to both the rate of inflation and the

state's population. Tax increases necessary for proposed spending above the limit now have to be submitted to Washington voters for approval. Politicians fought the proposal hard, but to no avail.

That same year there were similar votes in two other Western states. An Oklahoma initiative required that any increase in state taxes not approved by a three-fourths majority of the legislature must go to referendum, and Arizona voters approved an even more stringent tax-limitation amendment to their state constitution.

Other tax-limitation proposals are on the ballot this fall in Oregon, Montana, Florida and Nevada. The first three would require a popular vote on new taxes or tax increases, the fourth would require them to win a two-thirds majority in the legislature. All four appear to have a good chance of approval.

The people in those states who support tax limitations aren't from Mars. They're ordinary Americans out of patience with politicians continually spending their money and asking for more. There's ample evidence that plenty of Maryland residents share those views, and would vote for similar restrictions if they had the chance.

For the last eight years, Maryland has been governed by people whose operative belief seemed to be that there's nothing wrong with the state that more taxes won't cure. This dogma has been prudently kenneled recently, as elections loom, but it's sure to be unleashed again in January when the next legislature convenes.

In Maryland, anti-tax sentiment at the grass roots, no matter how strong, is of uncertain value in non-election years. Even if a dedicated tax-cutter were to be elected governor -- and right now Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, a Republican outsider, is the only one in sight -- the institutional brakes on the Annapolis spending machine would still be shaky. And if the next governor has major political constituencies looking for a post-election payoff, there will be no one in position to apply any brakes at all.

The right of initiative dates to the beginning of this century, when it was one of three reforms -- the others being the rights of referendum and recall -- backed by progressives. The PTC Progressive Party platform spelled them out in 1912, and for the next quarter-century they were gradually adopted by many states, particularly the newer ones.

Maryland's constitution includes the right of voters to petition unpopular laws to referendum, and over the years a number of such laws have been overturned thereby. But the state charter has never included the companion right of initiative, under which new proposals ignored or rejected by the legislature can be placed on the ballot. (Marylanders also have no right of recall, which permits elected officials to be removed from office by petition. But the arguments for that aren't as compelling as those for the ballot initiative.)

The ballot initiative isn't a cure-all. Politicians are clever creatures, and over the years have been frequently successful in evading the intent of reforms forced into law by voter petitions. California's 1978 Proposition 13 is a good example. That initiative cut property taxes, but the state simply raised every other kind of tax and refused to impose the spending controls taxpayers had envisioned.

In many cases, state governments restricted from funding their favorite programs have simply required counties and towns to fund them instead. But voters are getting wise to that dodge too. If taxes can be controlled by initiatives, so can mandates.

As a practical matter, initiative-based efforts at limiting state taxes and spending probably can't succeed unless there is some significant support for them within the political community, as well as in the electorate. A 1980 initiative in Missouri has been circumvented for 14 years. A 1978 initiative in Michigan was essentially ignored until John Engler, elected governor in 1992, decided to take it seriously -- and touched off an unexpected economic boom.

It's probably not surprising that there's no support from Maryland's political culture for giving the state's voters the direct influence on legislation that the right of initiative provides. But it's curious that the strongest opposition to this old progressive idea comes from people who consider themselves, above all else, progressive.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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