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Legislation via petition is new political weapon

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A new political weapon has emerged at City Hall: legislation through petition drive.

No one had ever used the City Charter’s “voter initiative” process successfully until last year – when left-leaning activists gathered thousands of signatures to force a minimum-wage hike onto the fall ballot. Voters passed it overwhelmingly, despite opposition from Mayor Richard Berry and others.

Four months ago, labor unions used the initiative process again, this time triggering a special mail-in ballot centering on the requirement for runoff elections. It, too, won voter approval.

Now, conservatives are seizing their own chance to get legislation directly before voters. Anti-abortion activist groups announced last week that they believe they’ve gathered enough signatures to get an “Unborn Child Protection” ordinance on the October city ballot. The proposal would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions to save the life of the pregnant woman.

But after three petition drives in the past year – one of which forced a $550,000 special election – city councilors are starting to talk about changing the City Charter, perhaps by making it harder to get initiatives on the ballot.

They could try raising the signature requirement or add other restrictions, although there are no firm proposals to do so yet.

Councilor Don Harris, an attorney, said the charter doesn’t make it clear whether the council can block an initiative, even if its passage would be illegal.

“It doesn’t say unconstitutional laws can’t be put on the ballot, so what do we do?” Harris asked. “There should be some way to vet these, so some of the problems can be addressed, but I’m at a loss for how to do that at the moment.”

The minimum-wage initiative, for example, faced legal questions because of faulty ballot language that summarized the proposal. The state Supreme Court ordered the city to put it on the ballot anyway.

As for the abortion proposal, City Attorney David Tourek has already questioned whether the city could enforce the law if it passed. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue in Roe v. Wade, which created a constitutional right to abortions in some circumstances.

Enact or hold election

Albuquerque’s City Charter, the bulk of which was adopted in 1971, allows “direct legislation by voter initiative.” The process starts when five registered voters file a notice with the city clerk about plans to circulate a petition.

They must gather signatures equal to at least 20 percent of the average turnout during the last four regular municipal elections or 20 percent of the turnout in the last election, whichever is greater. In this case, that’s 12,091 signatures.

If initiative supporters gather enough valid signatures, the proposal is supposed to be presented to the City Council for enactment. If the council fails to act, amends the proposal or rejects it, then “an election on the issues must be held within ninety days after the date of filing the petition,” according to the charter.

The only way to avoid an election, it appears, is if the council decides to adopt the proposal itself.

In the case of the minimum wage last year, there was already a statewide general election planned, so the wage measure was added to the ballot for Albuquerque voters.

For the runoff initiative earlier this year, there was no election already scheduled, so the city incurred the expense of holding a special election in March. That measure requires runoff elections between the top two candidates if none gets 50 percent in the first round of voting. The old requirement was 40 percent.

The anti-abortion groups want the city to schedule its proposal for the regular city election on Oct. 8, when the mayor and six council seats go before voters.

The initiative process hasn’t come into play often until the past year. In 2005, a petition drive succeeded in getting a minimum-wage hike on the fall ballot, but voters narrowly rejected it at the polls.

Considering changes

City Council President Dan Lewis said it’s important for the city to treat initiatives the same way, whether they come from the left or the right.

It would be “hypocrisy” to treat the conservatives pushing for abortion restrictions differently from the labor groups that pushed their own causes, he said.

“The bottom line is, our charter allows them to do that,” Lewis said.

But Lewis said he’s willing to consider increasing the signature requirement down the road, among other changes.

“I think those are all questions that should be asked and should be discussed,” he said.

Councilor Ken Sanchez, on the other hand, said the current systems works fine.

“People in the community should have that right, if they feel that strongly about any type of initiative,” he said.

Timothy Krebs, a University of New Mexico professor who studies urban politics, said the success of last year’s minimum-wage hike, in all likelihood, has encouraged other groups to pursue initiatives.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, which lifted many restrictions on corporate spending in elections, may also be a factor, he said.

“All these interest groups,” Krebs said, “are able to be a bit more organized and to have the resources available to collect the signatures and promote their causes.”

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