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Referendums, taxes and direct democracy

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Referendums, taxes and direct democracy
Date: Mon, 18 Feb 2008 20:00:07 -0500
From: Scott C. Tibbs <tibbs1973@yahoo.com>
To: H61@IN.gov, S40@IN.gov

Senator Simpson and Representative Pierce,

The governor's proposal to allow referendums for certain capital projects is certainly a reform worth considering. It is not unreasonable to require that voters have a voice before a large capital project is approved. While elected officials can certainly be thrown out of office for an unpopular bond that increases property taxes, the damage has already been done by the time the voters get a choice. The advantage of the Governor's proposal is that voters can stop a bad project before it starts. This could have an impact locally, should the reform be passed before county officials vote on a plan for the "justice campus" that could include a new county jail as well as a juvenile jail.

However, it is important to consider the philosophical ramifications of the proposal as well, and how it fits with our system of government. Indiana, like the nation as a whole, is a constitutional republic, with the highest legal authority being not the governor or legislature, but the state constitution. The men who founded this country were very suspicious of direct democracy and instituted safeguards against it. This country has functioned very well allowing the people to determine the direction of public policy while restraining impulses with the rule of law.

Some (such as Andrea Neal) argue that we can trust the voters and that referendums will not necessarily halt new projects. But we've also seen evidence that votes are often swayed by emotion rather than reason, and emotion is a volatile foundation upon which to base public policy. It is for this reason that I do not believe in direct democracy as the only way to determine public policy. But while populism presents dangers, so too does arrogance and elitism. Government cannot look upon citizens as too ignorant or stupid to understand the issues, especially since some citizens have a much better grasp on public policy than elected officials themselves.

I guess my position is that I do not have a position. Having a trigger where a referendum is automatically required does seem to go too far toward direct democracy and away from representative democracy. But can the process of remonstrating against a proposed tax increase be reformed, streamlined and simplified? Obviously, the people paying the bills need to have some way of officially objecting to something that could present a financial hardship.

However tax reform is implemented, I think setting an artificial deadline for having this done by the end of this legislative session is a bad idea. A major reform that will have impact decades into the future needs to be carefully considered, and I am concerned that election year politics could lead to rash decisions. The best path may be to lay out a plan to the voters and let them choose by way of picking representatives, senators and a governor who is closest to their views on tax reform, and then hash out the details in the 2009 long session.

Scott Tibbs