Making laws at the ballot box: first you get lots of signatures

Should corporate farm ownership be banned and casino gambling be permitted in Colorado? Should milk price controls be ended in Maine?

These and dozens of other citizen-posed questions affecting the economy and life styles of millions of Americans will be answered through the ballot box this fall.

It will be several more days -- perhaps weeks -- before it is known how many initiative petition proposals for changes in laws or state constitutions will go before the voters. But it seems nearly certain that there will more proposals this year than there have been in decades.

At least 46 citizen-launched proposals thus far have qualified for ballots in various states from Maine to Alaska. This is five more than in 1980 says Sue Thomas, research director of the Englewood, Colo.,-based National Center for Initiative Review. And it is the biggest crop since 1914, when there were 89.

Through the initiative process, boosters of measures often too controversial or politically unpopular to make it through the legislature can bring their case directly to the voters. If approved, these proposals have the same weight in law as those enacted by state lawmakers.

This grass-roots lawmaking approach, where decisions of often far-reaching consequence are made in the polling booth instead of through debate and compromise in legislative chambers, is available to citizens in 23 states plus the District of Columbia.

November ballots in 19 states and the District of Columbia will have one or more initiatives. Whether the total grows hinges on the outcome of voter signature certifications in two states and pending litigation in one others, explains Mrs. Thomas.

In Wyoming the state's highest court is deciding whether proponents of a measure to control the instream flow of water to protect fish and other wildlife have enough valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot. If the question reaches the ballot, it would be the first time such a citizen-sponsored petition got that far in the state. The state signature requirement is the stiffest in the nation.

Although the success rate may vary from election to election, the overall acceptance rate for initiative proposals in the past 75 years is about 36 percent, says David Schmidt, editor of the Washington-based Initiative News Review.

The 1982 crop of initiatives, unlike most two years ago, generally reflect the goals of liberals more than conservatives, he observes, noting the large number of environmental protection measures and the tone of other reforms being pushed.

Proposals to require deposits on metal, glass, or plastic beer and soft drink containers will be on the ballot in four states -- Arizona, California, Colorado , and Washington.

Also on the California ballot is an initiative to mandate water conservation practices in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley.

Californians will vote on a proposal for a nonpolitical commission to draw new legislative districts after each census.

Voters in Oklahoma will consider a Republican-crafted legislative redistricting plan to replace the one pushed through the Democratic-controlled legislature earlier this year. Election of state senators from single, rather than multiple-member districts, is proposed in South Dakota.

Voter-initiated measures calling for a nuclear weapons freeze are on the ballots in Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, and Oregon. The Montana proposal also seeks to ban location of MX missiles in the state.

A Colorado initiative calls for cleaning up of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing facility and conversion of it to nonmilitary production. Nuclear power foes in Maine, who two years ago tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the one nuclear power plant at Wiscasset, are back again with a similar initiative. It would phase out the plant by 1987. Two years ago 41 percent of those voting favored the proposal.

Future nuclear plant construction in Massachusetts would require a prior voter referendum approval under an initiative on the Bay State ballot. Meanwhile , in Idaho a proposal requiring voter approval of any nuclear power restrictions enacted by the legislature would be required under a pending initiative.

Initiatives seeking elected commissions to regulate utility rates are coming up in Arkansas, Michigan, and Ohio.

Tax-related measures, although fewer in number than two years ago, similarly have made it onto the ballots in at least seven states. Only in Oregon, however , is there a Proposition 13-type proposal, limiting property tax assessments to a fixed percent of market value. In neighboring Washington repeal of the sales tax on food and imposition instead of a corporate franchise tax is proposed.

Nevada similarly is considering ending the sales tax on food. Wiping out that state's tax on personal property also is on the ballot. In Maine, indexing of the state income tax, tying it to fluctuations in the national consumer price index, will be decided.

A proposed homestead exemption on property taxes is coming up in Idaho. Increasing the sales tax by 1 percent, with the proceeds used for public school financing, is on the Missouri ballot.

Boosters of a Montana initiative are seeking a restriction on using coal severence tax dollars for economic development. Outlawing the public funding of abortions is being sought through the ballot in Alaska.

Perhaps the most fiercely contested of all 1982 ballot battles is one in California involving a proposal greatly restricting handgun possession. Insiders anticipate opposition forces may spend close to $10 million in their campaign.

''This would break all records,'' says Mr. Schmidt, noting that the current spending record fighting an initiative was $7 million plowed into the 1980 California campaign to block passage of a measure requiring separate smoking and nonsmoking sections in indoor public places. It was successfully blocked.

Large sums also are expected to be invested in efforts to thwart passage of the various proposals to outlaw beer and soft drinks in nonreturnable containers. Businesses concerned over adverse impact of certain initiatives have increasingly dipped into their accounts to help fund opposition drives. Two years ago, for example, at least five corporations spent at least $1 million apiece fighting various initiatives.

Of the 46 initiatives assured of places on various state ballots, nine involve state constitutional amendments, 35 could create new laws, and two are directives.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.