Let the people’s voice be heard. We hear the mantra all the time but when it comes to letting the people make actual policy, Connecticut’s politicians don’t want the unwashed masses intruding on their turf—or so it seems.
Along with neighbors New York and Rhode Island, Connecticut is one of 24 states that has no process for citizen-initiated ballot measures. Maine and Massachusetts are the only New England states that allow ballot initiatives.
This makes it difficult to pass laws popular with rank-and-file voters. Of course, it also leaves the door open to enacting faulty legislation, or legislation that could explode in our faces and that lawmakers therefore do not want to have their fingerprints on. More on that later.
To wit, the conundrum of what to do about legalizing recreational marijuana. Going into this month’s election, voters had approved ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana in 13 states. Only two additional states—Illinois and Vermont—had legalized recreational marijuana through legislative action. And on Nov. 3, five more states legalized the drug through ballot measures, including nearby New Jersey.
By now it should be obvious that the reason Connecticut hasn’t joined the crowd is that there’s no way for citizens to weigh in on the question because so far the legislative branch has not indicated sufficient support. For legalization advocates, the lack of a popular mechanism is especially important in a state like Connecticut, which, notwithstanding its progressive creds, remains the land of steady habits and typically resists cultural change.
The legalization method employed in New Jersey could be the model for us. Like Connecticut, the only way to offer a ballot proposition in New Jersey is through a legislatively referred constitutional amendment. So in order for citizens to weigh in, an actual change to the state’s constitution must be proposed and lawmakers have to want to delegate some of their authority to the people who elected them.
Even though we all like ballot initiatives when they go our way (I cheered when Massachusetts voted to legalize weed), there are advantages and disadvantages to the mechanism. The obvious value is that citizen ballot initiatives can function as a check on the legislature. It stands to reason that lawmakers will be more responsive to certain types of legislation, knowing that if they aren’t, a ballot initiative could be launched—and lawmakers might not like the way citizens write the legislation.
The downside, of course, is that voter initiatives can result in bad law. The ballot questions are frequently complex and difficult for the average voter to understand. Citizens who propose these initiatives often don’t have help from lawyers and legislative specialists. And sometimes these initiatives run afoul of state or federal constitutions.
In Massachusetts, for example, voters in 2018 successfully petitioned to place on the ballot a so-called “millionaire tax” that would have placed a 4% surtax on any income above $1 million, but the state’s highest court ruled that it couldn’t be on the ballot since the Massachusetts constitution prohibits anything but a flat income tax.
In California, one of the first states to allow citizen-driven ballot initiatives, voters made a habit of voting laws into existence and, in turn, voting not to fund them. The sheer volume of the initiatives this year led one commentator to reluctantly conclude that, “A system that funnels lots of issues, both big and small, directly to the voters leads to bad policy judgments, because under-informed voters don’t have time to research and form opinions on all the issues.”
So I’m not arguing that Connecticut should go the way of California. If we went to a voter-initiative system, then the barrier to entry should be realistically high and a limit set on the number of ballot propositions for each election.
It’s unclear at this point whether recreational marijuana legalization would indeed require a constitutional amendment passed by Connecticut voters. No less an authority than incoming Speaker of the House Matt Ritter says the question of legalization deserves a vote in the House and he thinks it has a 50-50 chance of passing.
Ritter insists, “To me marijuana has nothing to do with revenue. I could care less.”
Is Ritter serious or merely striking a pose? Legal cannabis is, in part, about the revenue—and about jobs. A recent study by respected UConn Economist Fred Carstensen predicts legalization could net revenues for the state of up to $1 billion over the first four years of sales, along with roughly 17,000 decent-paying jobs by year four.
With slot revenues from the two tribal casinos dwindling, something’s got to give. A discretionary “sin tax” would be far better than the kind of broad-based tax increases, imposed with little effect, during the Malloy administration.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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