A friend sent me a link to an editorial from the Hartford (CT) Courant authored by Robert Satter. Mr. Satter is a judge trial referee in Hartford Superior Court and author of “Under the Gold Dome — An Insider’s Look at the Connecticut Legislature.” He is also, in my opinion, a very dangerous man. He has power and influence and is using them to undermine the foundation on which our country was built.
Connecticut votes in November on whether or not to hold a Constitutional Convention to amend or revise its constitution. Some want to do so to give citizens the right to directly petition their government via the Initiative and Referendum (I&R) process. I&R allows an issue to be voted on by putting it put on the ballot by citizen request as opposed to legislative action.
The I&R process is not well liked by politicians as it usually limits what they can do. It may curtail their ability to raise taxes at will or to take your property if you don’t want to sell. As such, it is not easy for citizens to actually get something on the ballot. I&R may be granted by a state’s constitution but laws governing the process are made by the legislature. Lawmakers determine how many signatures are needed to get an issue on the ballot and the length of time available to collect them. Such power often impedes the process so effectively it’s a wonder initiatives manage to get on the ballot at all. But If Mr. Satter had his way, you wouldn’t even have that right. Mere citizens aren’t qualified to speak to issues.
Satter starts out well enough.
The right of initiative is the right of citizens to propose laws or constitutional amendments that, if approved by a majority vote, have the force of law.
From there, his description of I&R makes it appear those desiring the power to propose a law are selfish, power mad and out to corrupt the process. Well, he’s right about that, too. He just got the subject wrong. Satter thinks voters are like that. In reality it’s a better description of lawmakers. I&R is a powerful tool for citizens to curb the excesses of government, not the other way around.
When Mr. Satter says I&R proposals
… are drafted by private lawyers representing narrow interest groups. Their wording frames the issue and cannot later be changed.
he’s arguing that’s bad for citizens. Has Satter never heard of lobbyists, lawyers and lawmakers? Are outsider Environmentalists OK as a narrow interest group when seeking to impose their view on the state but citizens who actually have to live with the laws passed too narrow an interest group to have an interest in the law?
Mr Satter says,
Those signatures are not spontaneously given by the public, but must be actively solicited. In the initiative states, a cottage industry of signature solicitors has sprung up. In California, it typically costs $1 million to obtain the requisite number of signers.
Does he not understand support for a bill in the legislature does not spontaneously arise? Lawmakers expend huge amounts of time and energy actively soliciting the support of their colleagues. He dismisses the labor by which I&R signatures are gathered and ridicules those doing the work as a “cottage industry”. He misleads readers by irresponsibly using the figure of $1 million with no context. If signature gathering is a cottage industry, what sort of “industry” is lobbying the legislature to get an issue on the ballot? Satter does not say where the money comes from to pay for signature gathering, just that it is spent. But these are not tax dollars, they are privately raised funds. If private money should not be used to influence the legislative process, I’ll have to point again to lobbyists. Satter doesn’t provide the total spent on lobbying the Connecticut legislature when it is in session. Something tells me it’s more than $1 million.
But Robert Satter’s worst insult to the intelligence and character of voters is saved for later.
And how is the campaign over initiative proposals waged? It is waged by slogans, bumper stickers, 10-second sound bites and by TV ads as if selling toothpaste. The vote is yes or no, up or down.
There is not the deliberation and accommodation of the legislative process in which bills are carefully scrutinized by committees of cognizance, subjected to a public hearing, debated in both chambers and ultimately signed by the governor. In that process, all sides of the issue are explored, its relationship to other matters of public policy considered, negotiations between opposing sides conducted, and compromises and changes of wording made.
In lawmaking by plebiscite, people rarely read the exact language of the propositions. They vote their general impression of the issue.
Do only I&R campaigns use slogans and sound bites? Does Satter really believe every bill passed is carefully read, deliberated and analyzed before being voted on? Is Satter actually arguing amendments hung on bills at the last second are completely understood and their ramifications tested and deemed acceptable? Is he seriously arguing citizens are incapable evaluating the impact their proposed I&R will have? It is true citizens don’t debate the possible impact of the law for a couple of weeks before passing it and hoping for the best as the legislature does. Citizens are forced to live with the actual results of those laws. Tens of thousands of hours of debate and analysis then take place in legislative chambers known as kitchen tables, water coolers, carpools and the like. By the time an I&R is proposed, the issue is well known. Usually because citizens have already asked the legislature to fix the problem and they have refused. In such cases, I&R is often the citizens last resort.
But Robert Satter thinks that’s a bad thing. The people of Connecticut, or anywhere else, shouldn’t be able to insist their lawmakers really represent them. Citizens are ignorant peasants without the requisite intelligence, interest, time or ability to understand the workings of government. That lofty pursuit is best left to better men. Satter’s premise is flawed. His conclusions are wrong. His arrogant contempt for citizens he seems to believe should be ruled over as opposed to represented is offensive. I&R is precisely what Connecticut and every other state without it needs, including my state of Tennessee. Without it, we are at the mercy of elitists like Robert Satter. While he may consider that a good thing, I find the prospect terrifying.