Idea: Sunset Initiatives

Editor's Note: On February 6, we asked BlueOregon readers to suggest progressive ideas that the next Oregon Legislature should enact. Over the next several weeks, we'll post some of these ideas here - and ask you to discuss them. Good idea? Bad idea? Any suggestions?

From Steven Maurer:

- All constitutional amendments and statutes passed by direct ballot initiative are given an automatic sunset provision.

- Every 10 years, each is automatically placed on the ballot for re-ratification when time is up. If it fails, it ceases to be law.

- This applies retroactively to all initiatives passed in previous decades as well.

- The legislature and governor may, by passing a statute in favor of an Initiative Ballot or Amendment, exempt a statute or constitutional amendment initiative for one time. This vote must take place within 1 year of the time it would be normally reratified.

- Votes to exempt a statute are automatically introduced on the floor of the State House and Senate. They may not be bottled up in committee.


[If you have your own original progressive idea to propose, do it here: "There oughta be a law."]

  • Garlynn (unverified)

    I like this idea. Gives the population of the state a chance to re-think ideas after living with them for a decade, and also allows for demographic changes over time to express themselves at the ballot box.

    Of course, the obvious downside is that, over time, people could come to dislike your own personal favorite past victory.

  • JJ Ark (unverified)

    I have been toying with the same idea for a coupla months. I keep coming back to the school speed laws: how in certain locations, it has become something of a hazard to knock the speed down to 20mph, and then how they didn’t have enough votes to remove the law the following year. Simply put: no one wanted to open themselves up to “soft on speeding” commercials.

    I really like this idea.

    One of our ideals should be reducing the number of laws on the books and enforcing those that are there already. Making life simpler, not more complicated.

    I think Americans in general have forgetten that we aren’t granted rights by the Constitution. That piece of paper doesn’t give us rights, it limits the government’s role. We ought to carry that thought to our role in crafting legislation. I think this is a step in the right direction. At minimum, it will make legislators review what is already on the books, instead of passing new laws to curb that which should be already covered by pre-existing legislation.

  • Anony (unverified)

    In favor, except the retroactivity. Measures passed already should not be affected -- that's altering the terms of what the voters voted on.

    Also, let's simplify it... no piecemeal legislative exemptions. The House and Senate should be able to pass a special Joint Resolution to lock in the initiative... or not.

    I like it!

  • gl (unverified)

    Its not needed. If we do not like our previous laws, or times have changed and the previous laws are not needed, we simply start an initiative ballot measure to void the previous law.

  • Wesley Charles (unverified)

    This is a perfect example of a solution in search of a problem. Re-voting every initiative constitutional change is progressive?

    Since 1906, more than 100 initiative petitions have created, amended and/or repealed sections of the Oregon Constitution alone. God only knows how many statutes have been affected the last 100 years.

    To put those 100+ constitutional changes up for a revalidation vote is a lawyer's dream come true. Just imagine the battles over the ballot titles alone. Would the ballot question be the original, or must it conform to today's requirements?

    To see the impact of retroactively voting today on every constitutional change brought about by initiative (omitting referrenda by HJR's), just load a copy of the Oregon Constitution and search for "initiative petition". Outside of Article I, there is scarcely an Article or section that has not been affected in some way by an initiative.

    But it is an intriguing fantasy. Everything from mandatory prison sentences to the creation of Metro to the abolition of slavery in Oregon would be put to another popular vote in the 21st century.

    Lon Mabon and Bill Sizemore are LOL . . .

    • Wes
  • (Show?)

    Any fundamental change in the initiative process really needs to be made through the initiative system itself. Otherwise, it will risk looking illegimate and face an extremely hard -- or next to impossible -- chance of passing the Legislature.

    Term limits for initiatives... it's an interesting idea. I'd love to get a chance to repeal Measure 5 (1990), but do we really need to revisit women's suffrage every 10 years?

  • Wesley Charles (unverified)

    OK . . . the slavery prohibition wasn't technically an initiative petition. But the imposition, and subsequent repeal, of Prohibition was by initiative (Article I, section 36). Would we vote to reinstate Prohibition, to repeal it [again] or both at the same time?

    But this could be fun. Let's see some of your favorite, or most obscure, sections of the Oregon Constitution created, repealed or amended that you would like to see put to another public vote.

    I'll start . . .

    Article I, section 39. Sale of Liquor by the Individual Glass

  • Jeffk (unverified)

    I like it! With a couple of small modifications......

    Re-ratification should occur after 5 and 10 years (and maybe 20), but not be required after that. Re-ratification should have to occur at least once before the legislature can propose making the initiative permanent.

    Initiatives passed in the last decade should be put up for re-ratification, but I'm not sure about going further back. I'd love to wipe out measure 5, but I think that's asking too much.

    When an initiative comes up for re-ratification, the effects of un-ratifying should be clearly spelled out (how would the constitution and/or ORS be changed?). This would be especially important if other initiatives or legislative fixes were based on the un-ratified initiative.

    Finally, a re-ratification vote should require at least some support for the initiative to be re-ratified. If it's possible to skip the re-ratificaiton, it should be possible to dump an "expired" initiative without bringing it to the ballot.

  • Jeffk (unverified)

    Here's an Oregon Blue Book link to all ballot initiatives, passed and failed.

  • JB (unverified)

    This is a lame idea. Here's a better one: end the initiative and referendum process altogether. Return to representative democracy. End mob rule. Who can deny that the "Oregon System" has screwed up Oregon big time in recent years (e. g., Measure 5, 11, 47, 50, 86, 37)? Yes, there have been some good ones, but they don't outweigh the bad ones. This year we may have to spend huge sums to try to defeat TABOR. Based on our track record, it will probably pass anyway. Stop the madness!

  • LT (unverified)

    This year we may have to spend huge sums to try to defeat TABOR. Based on our track record, it will probably pass anyway. Stop the madness!

    O ye of little faith. There is a new generation of voters--not to mention the single subject rule, the ability of private land owners to shoo away petitioners from the fronts of big stores, and the oversight that is done by the same folks who have caught petition cheats in the past, made life difficult for Sizemore and Mabon, etc.

    AND, this from the Oregonian shows that maybe McIntire and the bunch are not as popular with the general public as they once were.

    The taxpayers association has made one concession to critics by making a subtle change in wording in the Web site description of the initiative. According to Our Oregon's complaint, the Web site had said, "Monies above the cap cannot be spent -- therefore creating a rainy day fund." That sentence has been changed to: "The monies above the cap cannot be spent -- those funds can either be returned to taxpayers or set into a rainy day fund."

    It is not clear whether Oregon voters will get a chance to judge the merits of the arguments. McIntire said supporters of the initiative have gathered "around 40,000" signatures, well short of the 100,840 they need.

    And as a practical matter, they will need even more than the minimum. Summer Davis, a compliance specialist in the elections division of the secretary of state's office, said that in 2002, the average rate of valid signatures supporting initiatives that appeared on the ballot that year was about 69 percent; the average validity rate in 2004 was about 72 percent, she said.

    At a rate of 70 percent valid signatures, supporters of initiatives seeking to amend the constitution would need about 145,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

  • Wesley Charles (unverified)

    Speaking of initiatives, this fresh off the wire re: Dan Meek's latest initiative effort . . .

    Court Strikes Down Initiative

    "The Oregon Court of Appeals has dealt a setback to advocates of campaign finance reform in the state.

    In a ruling Wednesday, the court struck down a proposed ballot initiative that would have authorized enactment of limits or even an outright ban on campaign contributions by individuals, corporations, labor unions or other entitities.

    The court said the proposal, known as Initiative Petition No. 8, was unconstitutional because it contained two distinct and unrelated changes to the Oregon Constitution, violating a requirement that each amendment to the constitution "shall be voted on separately."

    Kevin Neely, a spokesman for Attorney General Hardy Myers, said the state has not decided whether to appeal the ruling, but Dan Meek, a Portland lawyer and chief architect of the initiative, said he would appeal to the Supreme Court. Initiative Petition No. 8 would not have imposed campaign contribution limits. But it would have made enactment of laws limiting or prohibiting contributions possible by exempting such laws from the state constitutions guarantee of the free expression of opinion. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that laws limiting campaign contributions violate the free expression provision of the constitution.

    The proposed initiative also would have allowed enactment of laws limiting or prohibiting campaign expenditures.

    The appeals court ruling, if it withstands an appeal, would effectively nullify another proposed ballot initiative, No. 37, that would limit individual contributions and prohibit corporate, union and organization contributions and expenditures except through political committees funded solely by individuals."

  • (Show?)

    If I remember right, in Massachusetts, voters have to approve initiatives twice before they become law. Maybe that's a good enough brake on stoopid initiatives.

  • Ramon (unverified)

    a) Repeal any law ever promoted by Don McInitire and ban whatever it is he and his merry tax-haters stand for, and

    b) Mandate whatever Progressives think sounds like a good idea.

    That should take care of just about everything.

    Oh, one more thing.

    c) Require that all newborns receive a free, clean dose of the Sten-Blackmer virus.

  • (Show?)

    Well, since this is my idea, I suppose I should defend it.

    An automatic sunset provision is not, as Wesley states, a solution in search of a problem. The problem is obvious: demagogic ballot initiatives have harmed this state far more than helped it. Yet due to what economists call "high barriers of entry", it is nearly impossible to repeal badly functioning initiatives through the initiative process.

    Legislatures have the exact same issues with statutes. They use sunset provisions to address them. So why don't we force ballot measures to do the same?

    Now Wesley is right that the idea of applying this to Amendments passed 100 years ago was not my intent. In fact, it was not my intent to even affect initiatives that were referred by the Legislature (perhaps subject to a supermajority). The specifics need fleshing out, but the fundamental idea is sound - and unlike many ideas we discuss here, politically doable.

    And that's what fundamentally sells this idea. As much as any of us agree with Kari's joke that we should "repeal any law promoted by Don McIntire", that is obviously not going to happen. Nor can we get rid of ballot initiatives. Voters will never pass a law that takes away control from them. However this idea gives them extra control - specifically the control of being able to say "Gee, that wasn't as good an idea as I thought it was the first time."

  • (Show?)

    My primary concern about this idea is that, after a couple of 10-year cycles, the compounding reauthorization (those up after 10 years, those up after 20 years, etc.), when combined with what's on the ballot in the current election, will produce an extraordinarily long ballot. I would be concerned that this would produce a lot of ballot fatigue.

    Kari, what I think you are remembering are the requirements for amendments to the Massachusetts state constitution. In Massachusetts, the state legislature has to approve a proposed amendment to the state constitution in the exact same form twice before it can be put before the voters. Thus, when it came to an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage, the legislature passed it the first time but it failed overwhelmingly the second time, and, thus, if I recall correctly, the amendment to ban gay marriage has not been put before the voters there.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    It's clear that the initiative process has fallen out of favor with many progressives. I don't share this view. None of the problems that have been caused by various anti-tax, anti-landuse planning, etc., could have been solved, or effectively mitigated by the Legislature. That hasn't happened, because the Legislature is driven by the same forces that drive initiative campaigns.

    If we can enact effective campaign finance reform for state elections and the Legislature comes to better represent the interests of the people, and at the same time, initiative campaign financing remains corruptible by wealthy interests, then I would consider limiting the initiative process as inferior to representative lawmaking.

    Until then, I see no reason to limit an initiative process that is no more wrong-headed or demagogic than the Legislature.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Okay, I think faster than I type. The third sentence should read:

    None of the problems that have been caused by various anti-tax, anti-landuse planning, etc. initiatives, could not have been solved or effectively mitigated by the Legislature.

  • Jesse O (unverified)

    The initiative system is fundamentally flawed.

    The legislative system has: checks and balances (House, Senate, hearings, Governor, court review). And voters elect all those parts, except the hearings. The initiative system has only: voters, courts.

    The legislative system has: laws drafted by legal experts who fit the language to the existing norms of Oregon law. Not foolproof, but generally higher-quality. The initiative system has: laws drafted by those who have no legal experience or ability to conform law to existing legal constructs, thus (a) creating legal messes like Measure 37; and (b) frustrating voters when the misdrafted initiatives are discovered to be illegal by the courts.

    The legislative system has: amendments and corrections after input, conference committees, etc. The initiative system has: laws cast in stone (when Constitutional amendments) or very hard to change (when statutory), warts and all.

    The legislative system rewards: laws that balance various interests and can get through all the checks and balances. The initiative system rewards: laws that receive good ballot titles, regardless of their details or impacts.

    In short, initiatives are based on 15-word soundbites, legislative laws are based on much more.

    <h2>That said, there are some inherent similarities in who wins (those with power and money) and that they're flawed systems.</h2>
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