OP-ED: Let Connecticut Citizens Be Heard
(Updated) In November, 2008, close to 580,000 Connecticut voters said “YES” to a Constitutional Convention, but it was soundly defeated by more than 267,000 votes. It was a David vs. Goliath campaign as reflected by the “YES” vote.
The engine driving that vote, in favor of this historic convention, was Initiative and Referendum, as reflected by a Courant-UConn poll, showing Connecticut citizens favoring ballot initiative by 65 percent to 30 percent opposed, and five percent undecided. The Hartford Courant, October 30, 2008 article, announcing the poll results stated “The poll found a correlation between a poor opinion of the General Assembly and support for the ability of citizens to legislate by petition and referendum.”
The Connecticut General Assembly has ignored this strong expression of public support for Initiative and Referendum. In the 2009 legislative session, four Initiative and Referendum Bills were submitted by legislators. Not one of them received a public hearing, and all died in the Government, Administration, and Elections Committee. Yet, that same committee gave a public hearing to bills such as “An Act Concerning the State Dance”.
Is there a more dramatic example of the Connecticut General Assembly being more unresponsive to the wishes of the Connecticut public?
Connecticut is one of only 19 states without any form of direct democracy. Direct Democracy; namely, Initiative, Referendum and Recall come from the Progressive Era, which began 120 years ago. At that time, Initiative, Referendum and Recall were a direct response to entrenched Legislatures being beholden to special interests, such as the railroads, the mining industry, and the banking industry. Some would argue that history is repeating itself here in Hartford, and in Washington. Initiative and referendum is responsible for passing Women’s Suffrage, direct election of United States Senators, child safety labor laws, term limits, public financing of elections, medical marijuana, and increasing the minimum wage, to name a few.
Most of our Connecticut elected officials maintain that the present system is working fine, and that legislators are accessible and responsive. If that is so, how do you explain their complete indifference to the 2008 Courant-UCONN poll results showing 65 percent of Connecticut citizens favoring Initiative and Referendum?
What is documented is that special interest lobbying at our State Capitol, has increased by 500 percent since 1990. What is also clear is that over one-third of our legislative offices races were uncontested in the 2008 election, and more than 95 percent of the incumbents were re-elected to office. In addition to the obvious entrenchment of our legislators, we see the anemic performances of the public watch dog agencies, the Office of State Ethics, and the State Elections and Enforcement Commission. Both agencies have been substantially enhanced, both in staff and budget, yet enforcement, particularly with the Office of State Ethics, has all but disappeared, especially when compared to its predecessor, the State Ethics Commission. All the while, the public is made aware on a continual basis of frequent missteps by it’s elected officials.
In October, 2008, I debated Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on the Constitutional Convention question, as well as the issue of citizens having Initiative and Referendum rights. His suggestion at that debate was that the Initiative and Referendum issue should be addressed in the context of a legislative election and not through a Constitutional Convention. We have heeded the Attorney General’s advice. A non-partisan, issue neutral political action committee called Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative, www.letourvoicesbeheard.org, has been formed. The purpose of the Committee is to advocate for ballot initiative and to educate the public as to where candidates stand on this critical issue for the 2010 state election, this November. Every candidate for state and federal office from all parties, will be asked their position on Initiative and Referendum, and we will then publish their position on our website, Facebook, and other media.
Perhaps in 2011, with a new and more responsive legislature, the voices of Connecticut citizens will be heard through a long awaited public hearing on new legislation, which, if made into law, will empower Connecticut citizens and give them a voice in their state government and their State’s future.
John J. Woodcock, III is Chairman of the Connecticut Citizens for Ballot Initiative, a former Legislator, and former State Ethics Commissioner.