Monday December 18, 2017

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RI’s proposed Voter Initiative legislation
addresses problems with the process in other states.

No state has all of these features and some states have a few, information pills
as listed below:

  1. This legislation is for an indirect initiative, generic
    which means there is a legislative review process with hearings on any proposed initiative. After 7 months of collecting the required signatures, the initiative must be submitted to the general assembly by March 1 of a general election year. The signature collection process, the verification of signatures and the legislative review process guarantees at least 18 months of public discussion and debate on the issue. (This is more time than given to most bills that pass through the General
    Assembly.) If the general assembly passes a statutory initiative, then it need not go on the
    ballot. If the general assembly does not pass the initiative, then it will go on the ballot and
    each legislator’s vote will go into the voter information handbook that is mailed to all
    households. An initiative for a constitutional amendment would need to be ratified by the
    voters, even if the general assembly approves the initiative. (Only MA and MS require the
    indirect process for a constitutional amendment and ME, MA, MI, NE, and OH require
    the indirect process for a statutory initiative.)
  2. Language in the constitutional amendment protects the civil rights and liberties of
    individuals and groups of individuals. “No initiative shall be permitted which shall abridge
    the civil rights or liberties, including those guaranteed by Article I of the Rhode Island
    Constitution or attempt to preclude the expansion of civil rights of any individual or group of
    individuals, and no initiative shall be permitted which would repeal or amend this sentence.”
    The secretary of State shall deny any petition that he/she thinks will violate civil rights. The
    legislation further provides for an expedited Superior Court review for any person or group
    that thinks a proposed initiative will violate their civil rights. (Only MA has similar
    protections.)
  3. Any Initiative affecting the state budget will not be effective until the fiscal year following
    the election. Additionally, if an initiative proposes to increase expenditures by more than
    $500,000, the proponents must identify a source of state revenue, taxes or other cuts that
    would balance the effect of the initiative on the budget.
  4. A fiscal impact statement will be prepared by the secretary of state, the treasurer, and the
    director of administration in consultation with the senate and house fiscal advisors. Any
    fiscal impact over $200,000 will appear in the voter information handbook and on the ballot.
    (Only CA, ME, NV, OR and UT mandate that a fiscal impact statement be printed in
    the voter pamphlet.)
  5. The signatures gathered on a petition for a statutory initiative must equal 5 percent of the
    total number of votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election (about 20,000
    signatures) and 10 percent for an amendment to the Constitution. (MA requires only 3 %,
    CA requires 5 % and 8%, CO 5% and 5%.)
  6. This required percentage of signatures must be gathered from 50% of the cities and towns,
    four of which must be cities. (From the Initiative and Referendum Institute, “Over 60%
    of all initiative activity has taken place in just six states; AZ, CA, CO, ND, OR, WA, all
    without a geographic distribution requirement. States with severe distribution
    requirements like ID, MS, UT, WY rarely have initiatives on their ballot.) Only 13
    states have any geographic requirement and most requirements are much less rigid
    than in RI.
  7. An initiative that has a singular or exclusive impact on any city or town must also be
    approved by the voters of that city or town.
  8. An initiative can only take place at a general election. (Maine, California, Colorado and 6
    other states have initiatives at off-year elections, or primary elections, with low voter
    turnout.)
  9. This legislation includes comprehensive campaign finance disclosure requirements
    throughout the entire initiative process. When gathering petition signatures, each “circulator”
    must have a detailed campaign finance report on hand for anyone to review prior to signing
    the petition documents. Voters would be able to determine the source of campaign
    contributions, and also, the parties of interest that are sponsoring the initiative.
  10. If the general assembly determines that a mistake has been made with an initiative, (even
    legislators make mistakes with bills they pass), the general assembly can override any
    initiative approved by the voters with a three-fourths vote during the first four years
    following the vote. After 4 years, a simple majority of legislators can override an initiative.
    (CA is the only state where the legislature may not repeal or amend a statutory
    initiative. Other states have a designated number of years before they can repeal an
    initiative or a super majority vote to do so.)

For all of the above reasons, the California Commission on Campaign Financing in 1998, judged RI’s proposed legislation to be model voter initiative legislation.

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