Legislature looking at citizen-created
By RICHARD HORN /Senior Staff Writer
Texans who feel elected leaders have mucked things up beyond
hope may soon have a chance to do better themselves.
For the first time, an initiative and referendum law is given
a fighting chance of passage through the Texas Legislature this
If it does, and if voters then approve a constitutional amendment
in the fall, Texans would join citizens in 24 other states in
being able to propose their own laws, with potential topics ranging
from term limits and campaign finance to affirmative action and
regulation of HMOs.
"It's an issue of freedom," said Mike Ford of Austin,
one of the leaders in the battle. "It's about the only tool
I know of for the de-concentration of power. With the initiative
you can say to elected leaders, 'Now wait just a minute, you guys
aren't a ruling class.' "
It's shaping up as a lively fight, with both sides dispensing
civics lectures while accusing each other of being willing toadies
for rich special interests.
Gov. George W. Bush backs initiative and referendum, though
he's not spending political capital promoting it, Ford said. And
Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock is giving supporters a chance; he appointed
several strong I&R enthusiasts, including area Sen. Tom Haywood,
to an interim Senate committee that recommended approval of the
plan now on the table.
Ford, who heads Texans for Initiative and Referendum, isn't
making bold promises about passage this session. But he believes
if it gets through the House and Senate, the popular idea is almost
assured of passage at the polls. And if doesn't pass the Legislature
this time, it will next time, he warned.
And then political life in Texas would become very different,
though it will not be the California-style terror opponents claim,
While new Republican strength in the Texas Senate will help
matters, Ford is quick to point out I&R isn't truly a GOP-vs.-Democrat
issue. It's a fight over power, and Republicans have latched onto
the initiative because they've been the outsiders.
"If Republicans had been in charge for 100 years,"
Ford said last week, "it would be Democrats who would be
saying we need this and it would be Republicans asking, 'Why?'
It really is about who's in control versus who's not in control."
And many of those in control - the lawmakers, the lobbyists,
the newspaper editorial boards - are going to struggle against
it, he said.
"We're going to have to hammer, be tough as nails,"
Ford said. Hunter's second thoughts
One of the leading opponents, Shirley Spellerberg of Texas
Eagle Forum, plans to hammer back just as hard, doing all she
can to make sure it doesn't muster the two-thirds votes in needs
in both chambers. She hopes it won't even make it out of committee.
"When I get through explaining the reasoning behind opposition
to it, I think that among the legislators you'll see a big change
in mind among those who've been for it," she said. "It's
a dangerous idea."
She argues Texans aren't nearly involved enough in the government
that exists. Why, she asks, create a new tool that will allow
special interests to spend enormous sums on media buys to manipulate
"I think the reason big professional lobbyists succeed
now is because the citizens fail to hold their elected officials'
feet to the fire," she said. "They go and vote and then
that's their duty until the next election. They need to get more
involved and make their representative form of government work."
State Rep. Bob Hunter of Abilene is one Republican who's having
second thoughts after years of support for the general concept
of initiative and referendum.
"We have learned far more now about what has happened
in states like California, and it's pretty scary," Hunter
Instead of being a boon to the grass-roots citizens, Hunter
said, evidence shows special interests have taken over and fueled
many of the propositions, hired people to complete the necessary
petitions and then shelled out huge sums to advertise for passage.
"It is not the panacea we would think," Hunter said.
"A lot of people are taking pause to really look at problems.
There have been some pretty dire consequences."
But Haywood and fellow Republican Sen. Troy Fraser said Texas
has learned from those mistakes and has the opportunity to pass
a measure that will work well here.
Haywood also dismisses arguments that people elect representatives
to do the job for them and don't need initiative and referendum.
"That's the same excuse people give for being opposed
to term limits," he said. "This is a similar cop-out
in my view. There are many issues people don't feel they have
the stamina or ability to fight for because of special interest
opposition." A matter of principle
Lobbyists and elected officials have silently kept a lid on
I&R for years, supporters claim. If so, then one sign of its
increased strength is the creation of organized opposition.
One of the most tireless critics is Spellerberg, the mayor
of Corinth in Denton County and a Republican who's trying to stop
her party from making I&R part of its dogma.
For one thing, she believes initiative and referendum would
violate the Texas Bill of Rights, which the legislature has no
authority to amend.
"If our legislators can bypass the Texas Bill of Rights
in this case, then all our constitutional rights are at risk,"
Spellerberg concedes something good might pass through I&R
on occasion, but the courts could still throw it out. Further,
she said, initiative and referendum is an unnecessary and risky
step that would flood voters with nonsense proposals and dilute
the power voters have but don't use.
"It's far easier if I have only my one representative
and my one state senator to express my opinion to rather than
having their voices muted completely in a statewide referendum,"
Ford, a small-businessman who calls himself a "student
of initiative and referendum," faxes around a point-by-point
dispute of Spellerberg's claims.
"Shirley has read the federal and state constitutions,
and she has frightened herself on this subject," he said.
"She seems to think if somebody votes for her instead of
her voting for herself, her constitutional rights will be protected.
That's not what protects your constitutional rights."
He notes that 24 states have some form of initiative and referendum,
most of them existing since the early 1900s. Those states, he
said, have not sacrificed representative government, they've just
given the people an additional tool.
Ford also disputes the notion that government is already open
"You hear people say, 'We've got open hearings, what do
we need I&R for?' " he said. "Well, that sounds
plausible unless you've actually been <I>down<I> to
an open hearing, and then you understand it is an insider game
you get to watch for a little while."
Arguments that voters would be awash in foolish proposals don't
fly with Ford, either. He lived in California for 31 years, he
said, and was involved in I&R there. People were adept at
sorting out the good from the bad, he argues.
"The proposals on the ballot were on more meaningful subjects
than what the Legislature fooled around with," he said. "The
(Texas) Legislature passes 1,100 new laws. Well, who in the hell
asked for 1,100 new laws? What the hell are they? Nobody knows.
Most of them are gifts of privilege to the insiders."
Spellerberg, who says the faxes Ford sends are full of errors,
still acknowledges I&R's popularity among many in her own
party, as well as the independent reform movement that's blossomed
in recent years. That's why she knows she has her work cut out
"We've all experienced so much frustration," she
concedes, "but I think right principle is right and you don't
change a republican form of government just because you think
it may benefit you in the short run."
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