While South Dakota Republicans chip away at the initiative and referendum, South Dakota Democrats are trying to protect the will of the people. Every Democrat in the South Dakota Legislature is backing House Bill 1175, a measure to insulate ballot measures from legislative tinkering. The bill text is brief:
If a measure is submitted to the voters of the state, legislation may not be proposed to affect the will of the voters for a period of one year after the vote on the measure, or the date of enactment, whichever is later.
Notice that HB 1175 would work both ways. If an initiated measure like our minimum-wage increase passed, legislators could not amend or repeal that popularly enacted law for one year. If a referendum succeeded and we repealed a law, legislators could not try to put that law back into effect for a year. Had HB 1175 been in effect in 2013, after we referred and repealed Governor Daugaard's really nasty and counterproductive education reform law in 2012, the Legislature would not have been able to propose bills to restore that law in full or in part; they would not have been able to resurrect the Critical Needs Teaching Scholarship, the sole productive component of that messy education reform package, until 2014.
On the other hand, if an initiative or referendum were to fail, HB 1175 would prevent legislators from revisiting those measures. If voters rejected an initiative to raise sales tax to increase funding for education and health care (as we did in 2012 on Initiated Measure 15), the next year's Legislature could not take up a bill to enact such an increase for such a purpose. I assume that legislators could take up a bill to increase the sales tax for other purposes, and they could take up a bill to increase funding for education and health care by different means.
A failed referendum vote—i.e., a vote in which voters chose to leave the challenged law in place—would lock that law in place in a way that simple legislative passage does not. Had Governor Daugaard's education reform withstood referendum in 2012, it would have become the voters' will, and HB 1175 would have protected it from any amendment in the 2013 session. Lawmakers could not have acted on a change of heart or fixed any gaps in that law until 2014.
I have argued that South Dakota Republicans are trying to weaken the initiative and referendum not for principle or public welfare but for pure political self-interest: they tend to lose initiatives and referenda, and they don't want the pesky electorate messing with GOP power and plans. My Republican readers could retort that Democrats are backing HB 1175 for the same selfish political reasons: South Dakota Democrats see initiatives and referenda as policymaking, organizing, and recruiting activities that serve their partisan interests.
But even if both sides are selfish bastards, the Democrats' defense of initiative and referendum versus the Republicans' attack thereupon demonstrates a fundamental difference in what the two parties think about Us the People. Republicans don't trust us. They cautiously let us vote for elected officials (even there, they throw up roadblocks), but they don't trust us to exercise legislative power directly. They want us, the unwashed and passion-addled mob, to trust those decisions to the elites, the elected officials in whose ears the corporate lobbyists drip their honey. They want a Republic.
Democrats do trust us. They want as many people as possible to vote not just for leaders, but for policies. They believe we the masses really can read, write, and pass good legislation. They recognize the fundamental unfairness in allowing legislators an almost immediate veto over our will while requiring us to undertake the lengthy and arduous process of gathering signatures and campaigning in a general election to challenge legislative action or inaction. Democrats say, "Let the people vote, and let their will stand." Democrats want a democracy.
House Bill 1175 poses some interesting legal questions about how the Legislature would go about fixing problems in initiated laws or laws that withstand referendum. But House Bill 1175 is the only good idea pertaining to initiative referendum to emerge yet from the 2015 Legislature. Turn up the heat on your phones and e-mails, and tell your legislators this is the one I&R bill they should support.