Testimony on a bill that would set up a process for referring city, county and school district budgets and levies illustrates the differences between democracy and representative democracy. House Bill 1199 was heard in a legislative committee this week. It was opposed by lobbyists for government programs and entities. It was supported by a taxpayer association.
The bill would give people 30 days to gather enough signatures to force a vote on a local government’s budget and would require an election in 60 days. The signature requirement, under the bill, would be 10 percent or more of the votes cast in the last “city, county or school district” election. It’s not necessarily a large number.
Such a law would “create an opportunity for budget gridlock,” testified Shane Goettle, speaking for the city of Minot.
It certainly could.
But, “The local budget process is often completed before the public can appear before the political subdivision,” offered Sandy Clark, speaking for the North Dakota Taxpayers Association. And that’s true.
What’s really being discussed is democracy vs. representative democracy.
In the purest form of democracy, there would be citizen votes on everything. There wouldn’t be much need for city or county commissions, school and park boards or, for that matter, legislators. The people would just vote, and given the functionality of social media, that’s not so far-fetched. It’s not far from there to anarchy.
That’s not what we do.
We elect people to make decisions for us — decisions like developing a budget. We elect people and give them the task of studying the choices and making decisions because we do not have the time or inclination to do so.
Back to HB1199. People proposing this legislation don’t really want pure democracy. Generally, they do not have the time or inclination to make every decision brought before local boards and commissions.
Rather, they believe, based on their experience, that the officials they elected are not listening to them. They believe board members and commissioners are not representing their views.
Government, as it expressed itself in the hearing, is worried about process, moving the budget from worksheets to final form, setting levies and paying bills. People initiating measures and referring actions mess that up.
We would suggest good government listens to its citizens — not that it panders to them or always knuckles under, but that it respects the opinions of citizens and treats them honorably. And taxpayers, when they elect people to office, need to respect the judgment of those officials, all within reason and good faith.
HB1199 has some technical problems that could be fixed. It would be unnecessary if people thought they were being heard. It would be unnecessary if voters paid more attention to the candidates at election time.
Referral and initiative are good tools. However, using them can be painful for all parties — and it should be.