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Ballot Initiatives Rise As a Route Around Legislative Gridlock

Term limits, finance reform put in voters' hands

Direct democracy" is catching on as never before.

Voters in 24 states will face a record number of ballot initiatives on Nov. 5, ranging from term limits and campaign finance reform to hunting techniques and cleanup of the Everglades.

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The initiatives are significant not only for changes they bring to the states, but also for the signals they send to Capitol Hill. In the past 10 years, the number of ballot initiatives has more than doubled - from 41 in 1986 to 93 this year - a clear signal of frustration with traditional representative democracy.

"The public tends to be very skeptical of government these days, and it has become increasingly aware of how the initiative process works," says Joan Ponessa of the Public Affairs Research Institute in Princeton, N.J. "More groups have decided that if they can't get [what they want] through the legislature, they'll put it on the ballot."

In fact, it isn't just average citizens who are crafting initiatives. At times, millions of dollars are required to get the public's attention and battle opponents, thus inviting the special-interest groups and money that some initiatives are aimed at curbing.

The highest-profile measure is the California Civil Rights Initiative, which would erase most affirmative-action programs here. If it passes, as expected, other states are likely to follow suit - and it could spawn efforts in the next Congress to curb federal race- and gender-based programs. The effects of California's last referendum blockbuster, Proposition 187, denying most state aid to illegal immigrants, was seen in both federal welfare and immigration reforms.

This year's ballot smorgasbord also features a new approach by the term-limits lobby. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that federal term limits would require an amendment to the Constitution. But advocates fear both houses of Congress would never pass an amendment without a strong nudge from voters.

So activists have borrowed from the technique used early this century to gain direct election of senators: Printing a candidate's position on the issue directly next to his name on the ballot. In the case of term limits, voters in 14 states will decide whether they want candidates who have voted against term limits to have a ballot notation next time that says "disregarded voter instruction on term limits."

"The idea here is, how do you get members of Congress to vote against their own self-interest?" asks Jonathan Ferry, communications director for US Term Limits, which will spend $10 million to pass the initiatives. "This says to members, 'Look, if you play the games you played in the past, you're not gonna be able to hide.' "

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In opinion polls, voters support term limits, but it remains unclear just how hard voters are clamoring for them. Still, all 14 initiatives - worded almost identically - are expected to pass.

But the League of Women Voters is fighting back. "We believe that issues should definitely be a part of the campaign, but that they should not be part of the ballot," says Becky Cain, the League's president. She adds that term limits are unnecessary, because we already have them: elections.

Campaign finance reform for state and local races appears on the ballot in six states: California, Maine, Montana, Colorado, Arkansas, and Nevada. Maine voters will be offered the most far-reaching campaign-finance reform, with provisions for public financing of campaigns.

IN California, two competing reforms have been put forward. One would require candidates to raise at least 75 percent of donations from their own constituents, ban corporate and union contributions, and limit donations to $100. The other would limit contributions to state and local candidates, create incentives to limit spending, and ban contributions from lobbyists.

Besides Florida, environmental measures appear on the ballot in New York and in Maine. New Yorkers will vote on a $1.5 billion bond for environmental cleanup, and Mainers will deal with clear-cut logging.

The Florida measures, over how to clean up the Everglades, tread in the sticky area of taxation, and thus have spilled into the presidential campaign for this key battleground state. One measure would amend the Florida Constitution to levy a penny of tax on every pound of raw sugar produced in the state, a concept President Clinton supports and GOP nominee Bob Dole opposes. Another Florida Everglades initiative would require that polluters pay, and a third measure would set up a restoration trust fund.

This battle, like that over term limits, demonstrates another truth about so-called citizen-initiated ballot initiatives: As high-stakes issues are turned directly over to voters, they have less the feel of home-grown efforts and more the flavor of professional political campaigns. One group alone, Save Our Everglades, plans to spend $10 million, much of it for television advertising.

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