Last week, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann announced his support for “good government proposals” that include placing restrictions on individual campaign contributions to elected state officials, limiting the number of years a person can serve in office, and allowing California style ballot initiatives in Wisconsin.
Neumann says these measures are needed to restore our faith and trust in government.
The truth is that we’ve placed too much faith and trust in our government and our government has consistently let us down. No amount of good government legislation will change that because government simply cannot do everything our elected leaders promise it will do.
That’s not to say we can’t improve things by increasing government accountability and transparency. Neumann’s proposal to make government expenditures accessible by internet and to require a five day waiting period to pass major spending legislation are ideas that should be pursued.
On the other hand, Neumann’s idea to allow what he calls citizen referenda in Wisconsin is an idea whose time should never come.
One need look no further than California to see that the practical application of citizen legislation is a less informed electorate voting on sweeping legislative changes that are initiated, not by average citizens, but by power brokers, wealthy ideologues and public employee unions.
According to the Center for Governmental Studies’ report titled, Democracy by Initiative:
California’s initiative process has become an expensive battleground in which the most sophisticated and successful media weaponry is available to those with enormous sums of money. From 2000 through 2006, special interests spent over $1.3 billion passing or defeating ballot measures. The median initiative campaign spent $4.3 million in 2000, and median expenditures rose steadily since then to $15.7 million in 2006—with the extreme exception of the November 2005 election, when the median campaign spent $36.7 million.
If the cost of California referenda campaigns doesn’t give you sticker shock, the tab for the unfunded mandates left in their wake most certainly should.
David Abel, chair of the 1999 Speaker’s Commission on State and Local Government Finance, says the pattern of initiatives like Proposition 98 has altered the state’s ability to tax and spend and “has become a profound attack on representative government,” with destabilizing effects. James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle adds, “By mandating spending, the initiatives have tied up well over one-third of the state’s general fund and leave politicians with the unpopular job of figuring out what has to be cut to make way for the required programs.”
While it’s lovely to imagine Wisconsin conservatives rising up to require the legislature and Governor to balance the state budget using generally accepted accounting principles, we are far more likely to see Wisconsin Citizen Action and the Wisconsin State Employees International Union using their considerable resources to mandate state government-run health care.
If you’re not convinced Wisconsin ballot initiatives would go the way of California, talk to employers in the city of Milwaukee. They’ll be in court next week to fight a “citizen driven” ordinance that requires Milwaukee employers to provide up to nine days of paid sick time per year.
The only way to truly reform government is to limit its power. If the state of California and the City of Milwaukee are any indication, citizen driven legislation through referenda will have just the opposite effect.
-January 14, 2010