Petition Process Drawing Scrutiny

Saturday, June 23rd 2007, 1:58 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Attorneys will soon be fighting it out in federal court over whether out-of-state circulators should be allowed to collect signatures on initiative petitions in Oklahoma that allow citizens to make their own laws.

Meanwhile, some say the original purpose of the petition process has been obscured by special interests with an ideological bent who have the money to unduly influence public opinion.

Kent Meyers, Oklahoma City attorney who led the successful legal battle to oust the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights petition, known as TABOR, said the initiative petition process was originally envisioned as a way for citizens to ``rise up when they felt the Legislature was doing the wrong thing or not doing what it should be doing.''

``Now, the direct democracy movement is basically being controlled by out-of-state people that have the money. The whole intent of the thing is kind of upside down,'' Meyers said.

Oklahoma is among 24 states that have the initiative process, which grew out of a populist movement started more 100 years ago that was led by reformers upset with the influence of big business on government.

It is a form of ``direct democracy'' that allows the people to participate in making policy.

The federal government is not affected because the U.S. Constitution vets all national legislative powers in Congress and ``representative democracy.''

For decades, political scientists have debated the merits of direct democracy and representative democracy.

In his book, ``Direct Democracy,'' Thomas E. Cronin, noted political scientist and educator, writes that minority rights have suffered at the hands of both voters and state legislators.

``It seems clear, however, that the proponents of the initiative and referendum seriously underestimated the effect of money in initiative and elections,'' Cronin writes. ``Although money is not always a decisive factor, it is always an important one, and big money, well spent, can usually defeat ballot questions.''

Besides trying to enact a law through the initiative process, voters in Oklahoma can repeal laws enacted by the Legislature through a referendum petition. Lawmakers also can place a referendum on the ballot for a decision by voters.

Supporters of the initiative process say it is often necessary for Oklahomans seeking changes in government to obtain financing outside the state.

Rick Carpenter, local organizer of the ill-fated TABOR effort, said 99 percent of the funding for the campaign came from out of state, but Oklahomans got the drive started.

Their efforts to place new restrictions on government spending were upended by an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that invalidated signatures collected by out-of-state residents. A state law requires signatures to be collected only by residents of the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said the court ruling ``sends a clear signal that Oklahoma will not allow out-of-state special interests to manipulate public policy in this state.''

The state high court recently threw out another initiative petition _ the so-called ``65 percent solution'' proposition that would change how school funds are distributed. It was part of a nationwide campaign spearheaded by Internet entrepreneur Patrick Byrne.

Justices held that brief descriptions on petitions did not adequately describe the proposed ballot measure.

Out-of-state groups have been prominent in other petition drives in Oklahoma in recent decades _ most notably in the measure that led to imposing a 12-year term limit on members of the Legislature.

Michael Salem, Norman attorney, filed the federal lawsuit challenging the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in the TABOR case.

Salem is representing Yes on Term Limits Inc., which is seeking to circulate an initiative petition to limit the terms of the attorney general, lieutenant governor, auditor and inspector, insurance commissioner, treasurer, school superintendent and labor commissioner.

He said the court's ruling ``changes substantially, according to my client, the ability to get a petition (campaign) up and running.''

The suit argues the prohibition against using nonresident petition circulators is a violation of free speech.

Plaintiffs include Robert Murphy, an Oklahoman and vice president of Yes on Term Limits Inc., and professional petition circulators Sherri Ferrell of Florida and Eric Dondero of Texas.

Salem said the suit stands up for the free speech rights of both Oklahomans and out-of-state residents and the right of people to come to Oklahoma to seek employment.

He said Oklahoma ``cannot engage in discrimination against nonresidents unless there is a substantial reason for the difference in treatment.''

``We are reviewing the lawsuit and will respond accordingly,'' said Charlie Price, spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson.