State lawmakers face a nearly $900 million budget gap after voters rejected a pair of legislative referrals asking them to sweep some $450 million from two previously voter-approved spending commitments.
This follows on the heels of two years of budget cuts totaling more than $2.3 billion.
To some, budget troubles plaguing Arizona and other states have exposed an unintended consequence of the ballot initiative process.
“We need to do some kind of reform,” said Rep. Vic Williams, Republican state representative for Legislative District 26. “We are basically legislating from the ballot box in Arizona.”
First elected in 2008, Williams has been critical of initiatives and the spending mandates many impose on the state. He’s advocated for reforms that would require certain voter-approved measures to come up for review and additional voter approval in the years following approval.
“One of the solutions is that any initiative that has a direct spending allocation should be reaffirmed by voters on some basis, maybe every eight to 10 years,” Williams said.
A bill he sponsored to that effect didn’t make it past committee sessions.
Initiatives and referenda have long been considered a cornerstone of direct democracy in America. Ordinary citizens can propose and write laws for voter approval, or seek the removal of elected officials through popular vote.
Arizona is one of 24 states whose citizens exercise one or both of the rights. Since 1912, the year of statehood, the electorate in Arizona has voted on at least 170 ballot questions, approving 85 of them.
Initiatives have been used to extend the rights of citizens, as the recently passed medical marijuana measure does. They also can be used to initiate new government programs and services, many with spending mandates attached. These often become expensive and, in the view of some, limit the role lawmakers play in setting budget priorities.
“One of the problems you have is that it often ties the hands of the legislature,” said Matthew J. Streb, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Illinois.
Streb has researched and written about initiatives, and finds numerous problems in direct democracy as practiced through ballot propositions. He opposes letting voters have direct control over spending matters, especially when their decisions can stand for generations.
“You have to be very careful how the initiative process should be used,” he said. “These are complex issues, and you’re giving voters the credit card.”
As much as $3.9 billion per year of general fund spending in Arizona is the result of voter-mandated spending on programs such as open space preservation and education, according to an October report from the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee. In the current budget year, the state general fund totaled about $9 billion.
Those spending programs are exceedingly difficult for the legislature to modify as well. To do so, lawmakers need either to muster a three-fourths majority in the legislature, or voters have to approve a second measure to alter or eliminate the original initiative.
Streb also has been critical of the potential lack of openness in the initiative process.
Often, advocacy groups and activists essentially write laws designed to benefit their interests or ideology. After gathering enough signatures from residents to get the proposal on the ballot, voters are tasked with a “yes” or “no” question.
“It undermines deliberative democracy,” Streb said.
Under the normal legislative process, lawmakers propose a bill that later goes through a series of public changes. Debates, amendments and traditional political horse trading almost guarantee that a bill passed into law will not resemble that which was proposed.
With initiatives proposed by interest groups, any deliberation has been done behind the scenes, or by legal experts paid to write the proposal.
Streb also said it’s a lot to ask of voters to weed through the intricacies of often lengthy and numerous ballot questions.
“A lot of the initiatives are so complexly written that it’s hard for people to understand what the implications are,” he said. “It’s really difficult to have a good understanding of what you’re voting on.”
Even one of the country’s most ardent advocates for direct democracy, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, gave initiative and referenda states poor marks on it most recent annual report card.
Among the 24 initiative and referenda states, only Colorado received a grade above a C with a B grade.
Four other states received C grades. All other states got D or F grades. Arizona got a failing grade on the BISC Ballot Integrity Report Card. Falsifying signatures poses problems in many initiative states as well, according to BISC.
The group cites numerous problems with the process, chief among them the opportunities for fraud most initiative states present.
“In recent years, the integrity of the system has been increasingly undermined by a lack of standards, transparency, accountability, and oversight in numerous states,” according to the BISC 2010 report card.
The group cites ballot fraud as the biggest problem. It says many advocates give initiatives misleading titles and misinform voters about the content.
Despite the problems, not everyone thinks ballot initiatives and referenda spell doom for representative democracy.
“It’s not direct democracy versus representative democracy,” said John Matsusaka, a professor of law and business at the University of Southern California. “It’s representative democracy period, or representative democracy with a safety valve on top of it.”
He said lawmakers never want to feel their hands have been tied, or they can’t act with impunity. The current budget shortfalls plaguing states only serves to make the situation worse from a legislative standpoint.
“In a crisis time, it makes things harder,” Matsusaka said.
His research points focuses primarily on California. There, his work shows that initiative spending accounts for about 30 percent of general fund spending at most.
But he said the idea of trying to make voters revisit previous spending measures sounded peculiar.
“It seems to me that it should then apply to every spending program,” Matsusaka said.
He also disputes that the initiative process lacks openness, and rewards narrow or parochial interests.
“It is true that interest groups have the money to run campaigns, but that only gets you halfway there,” he said. “The legislatures are highly influenced by interest groups as well.”
In fact, he said, it’s easier to envision lobbyists and special interests manipulating a handful of lawmakers than it is to view the same people as influencing potentially millions of voters.
Moreover, he said, claims that the volume of ballot questions leaves voters confused and ill-informed while legislators study each bill closely is hard to believe.
“I find it curious, there’s really not much deliberation happening in the legislatures,” Matsusaka said.
He said ballot initiatives get debated more thoroughly in the public sphere than most candidates. Plus, voters can go to numerous outside groups or media outlets to learn the details of ballot initiatives without delving into the legalese of a plan.