In explaining why we don’t need ballot initiatives when we have the Legislature, columnist Jonathan Hoffman tells us: “Our fourth president, James Madison, also believed a legislator would represent a constituency consisting of many factions and therefore be more inclined to vote for the greater good, and that the legislator would be more open to compromise. A legislator will hear from all sides of an issue, then, hopefully, take a few calming breaths and think it through.” Oh, that it were so!
Whether in state legislatures or the U.S. Congress, the reality is that most legislators represent districts where one party dominates to the extent that primaries are the only elections that matter. In primary elections, voters tend to choose the most ideologically “pure” candidates. “Playing to the base” is a winning strategy for election and re-election. There is precious little incentive to “hear from all sides of an issue” and “be open to compromise.”
The framers of Arizona’s constitution were wise enough to anticipate this eventuality and provided the initiative and referendum as remedies for an unresponsive Legislature.
The Arizona Heritage Fund provides a textbook example of why we need ballot initiatives. After many unsuccessful attempts by outdoor enthusiasts, the Arizona Legislature created a state parks department in 1957, but failed to appropriate funds to acquire and improve properties to meet the recreational needs of a rapidly growing urban population. Except for some donated properties, Arizona State Parks was more concept than reality.
Efforts to secure funding for state parks mostly went nowhere until 1990, when a coalition of conservationists, hunters, anglers, campers, hikers and historical preservationists created the Arizona Heritage Fund with a 2-to-1 vote by ballot initiative. The successful initiative provided up to $20 million from the lottery each year to be divided equally between Arizona State Parks and Game and Fish. Heritage Fund grants often served as seed money to attract funding from other sources. The result is a system of 35 parks and natural areas that attracted nearly 3 million visitors and, in 2017, generated more than $300 million in economic benefits for the mostly rural communities that host state parks at no cost to Arizona taxpayers.
In response to the economic downturn, the Legislature swept the balance of the Parks Heritage Fund in 2010 and, inexplicably, took the fund out of statute in 2011. The Game and Fish Heritage Fund remains intact, at least for now.
Since 2011, the mission of the Arizona Heritage Alliance has been to restore the Parks Heritage Fund as originally approved by voters and preserve the Game and Fish Heritage Fund. In three consecutive sessions, bills to refer the Parks Heritage Fund to voters passed unanimously in the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee, only to hit the wall in House Appropriations. In the perfect world of responsive legislatures envisioned by Jonathan Hoffman, he conveniently ignores the fact that a committee chair can refuse to hear a bill for any reason or no reason at all.
Representative government? I think not!
By ballot initiative, Arizona voters have also mandated more-humane conditions for factory-farmed hogs, outlawed hideously cruel steel leg-hold animal traps and banned the barbaric blood sport of cockfighting. In each case, the Legislature could not or would not act.
Outdoor recreation and animal cruelty are not liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican issues. Yes, we have legislators, but they’re not always responsive to the electorate. That, in a nutshell, is why we still need ballot initiatives.