'There oughta be a law' movement lets fed-up citizens write their own laws

Politicians in several states collect suggestions that they take before their fellow lawmakers. Some suggestions have succeeded in becoming law.

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    A movement called the 'there oughta be a law' lets fed-up citizens write their own laws.
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While Democrats and Republicans are at odds and polls expressing historic voter dissatisfaction, disgruntled voters in a handful of states now an outlet that could channel that populist anger into real-world solutions, say several political analysts.

The idea is called the “there oughta be a law” contest, in which citizens send ideas for new laws to lawmakers who then bring them before state legislatures. The movement began in California in 2001 and has now grown to about half a dozen incarnations from California to New York.

Used by high school government class teachers for years, the idea of “do it yourself” legislation was formally introduced by California State Sen. Joe Simitian nine years ago, when he began his contest named after a popular 1930s and 1940s comic strip.

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The first year was so successful – 100 proposals yielded two ideas that are now law – that Senator Simitian made the contest an annual event. Simitian’s idea has generated 16 pieces of real-world legislation. Now, in its latest incarnation, Assemblyman Jerry Hill is launching his own "there oughta be a law" competition Monday, for residents of his 19th Assembly District Monday. From now through New Years Day, constituents can submit ideas via e-mail or snail mail. Simitian closed his contest Nov. 24.

Political scientists say the program encourages an active citizenry. “It is good. Civics 101. Get district constituents engaged in government,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. While acknowledging the contest is "a media attention-getter," Ms. O'Connor says "whatever helps reengage the citizenry is a good thing. Let them vote on which bill they will all support. Direct democracy is how we started.”

Simitian says he came up with the idea after being a local elected official for many years – including as mayor of Palo Alto – and then moving to Sacramento for his first term as state senator.

“I came home for the first break realizing that it was the constituent contact that I missed, being up in Sacramento meeting with nothing but lobbyists and interest group advocates,” he says. “While kicking around the idea of getting regular constituents involved we kicked around several ideas that we figured would end up as press releases to nowhere,” he recalls.

Then he remembered a comic strip from the '30s and '40s, entitled, "There oughta be a law" that took a daily wry look at everyday behavior and came up with the idea of a contest.

“I think this notion that people are turned off, jaded, and cynical is because they don’t have access to the process,” he says. “This is about a direct way as possible to have access without being in the legislature.”

Simitian reviews each of the proposals himself. If he decides to craft a bill, he often will call in the person who drew up the would-be law for testimony before legislative colleagues. The first year three entrants won with their idea to require the state Department of General Services to implement a demonstration project to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides on State Capitol grounds. Another also won with her idea to require businesses which have issued gift certificates to continue honoring those even if they have filed for bankruptcy.

Not all initiatives from the program are brand new. Some fix existing laws.

Others go all the way through the process only to be nixed at the very end. The entrants proposed increasing the fine for spilling debris from commercial trucks, and another won Assemblyman Hill’s contest for the idea of seeking a disclaimer on solicitation letters that falsely appear to be from public agencies. Both ideas passed the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Some of these ideas fail because, even though it’s a great idea, it’s too costly,” says Simitian, “or is a non-starter because of the politics of it.”

But even if an idea doesn’t make it through, he and others says the process of civic engagement is still valid.

“The process is not pretty. It’s competitive and complex and driven by lots of groups and agencies,” says David Barrett, a political scientist at Villanova University. “But this teaches the normal citizen the ins and outs of the process, and that extreme frustration is a big part of what it’s all about.”

Several analysts say the exchange of ideas is valuable because they keep legislators in touch with constituents.

“Constituents really are a source of legislative ideas. Anybody who has worked for a member of Congress or a state legislature can attest that a lot of the mail comes from nuts,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “But some comes from sane people who have legitimate points about problems and policies. Smart lawmakers heed smart constituents.”

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