When the power of initiative petitions, referenda petitions and recall petitions was placed in the hands of the people during the Progressive era, it was intended to empower the public against politicians and corporate power.
Today, however, politicians and corporations are the only ones that can successfully use them.
Politician Bob Beers was in Carson City this week to file an initiative petition with the putative purpose of limiting taxes but the actual purpose of aiding Beers in his campaign for governor. He learned this tactic from Jim Gibbons, who sponsored an earlier anti-tax petition to help his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1994.
In California, this sort of thing has become a major industry, with corporations trying (and often succeeding) to write protections for themselves into state law or politicians using the process to publicize their names.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When initiatives and the other reforms came into being in the first decade of the 20th century, it was a period of widespread corruption, business power abuses and unresponsive public officials. Initiatives, referenda and recall were provided as means for the public to override those obstacles.
Politics, including ballot campaigns, have become so expensive that no genuine grass roots citizens or group can afford to circulate petitions, much less pay for the subsequent campaign. So, they are entirely in the hands of power brokers like Bob Beers.
Beers is a member of the Nevada Senate. He has the power to introduce bills, make his case for them, lobby his colleagues, and win or lose. This is a rare privilege in a republic. The public can’t introduce bills at the legislature.
Now, because he was not skilled enough as a legislator to get his measure enacted in the legislature, Beers has seized on the initiative process that was meant to be used by non-politicians. Having taken his bite of the apple, he now wants the public’s bite, too.
Not for a quarter of a century has a genuine grass roots-fueled petition drive succeeded in Nevada. Instead, party hacks like Bob Beers have staged a hostile takeover of the petition process and are using it for their political—not reform—purposes.
There is probably no way to craft the petition laws to restrict the use of initiatives, referenda and recall to the public and to keep it out of the hands of politicians and corporations. More’s the pity. But it would be nice if the politicians, at least, would show the responsibility and restraint to keep their hands off tools that were designed to be used against them, not by them.