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Taking the initiative

The holiday season is just ahead, but another season looms on the horizon — one that comes around all too often.

Ballot initiative season.

Once again, government by initiative and referendum is likely to confront voters at upcoming elections — local and statewide. This is hardly a new phenomenon in Colorado. In the last state elections, Colorado achieved what some consider dubious, and others laud: with 14 initiatives and amendments on the ballot, the state vaulted to the No. 1 spot in the nation, ahead of perennial front-runners Oregon and California.

Colorado’s November 2010 ballot could include at least two initiatives that will, if passed, have a profound impact on an already perilous budget situation — an impact, depending on one’s perspective, that would be desirable or disastrous. Not a new scenario in Colorado politics.

In short, among other things, Proposed Initiative 10 would allow for a variety of tax cuts, including cutting the state income tax rate from 4.65 to 4.5 percent beginning January 2011, and would continue to cut the rate one-tenth of a percent each year that net income tax revenues grow by at least 6 percent, until the rate reaches 3.5 percent. Critics say that could mean at least $73 million less for education and health care in fiscal year 2010-2011.

Proposed Initiative 12 would overturn all “De-Brucing” votes in school districts that allow those districts to retain revenues in excess of TABOR limits. It would require a four-year lifetime on any further successful De-Brucing efforts.

All this is possible against a backdrop of a state relying on federal stimulus funds to merely stay afloat. Even with $1 billion trimmed from last year’s budget, the state has to cut an additional $271 million for the next fiscal year.

Locally, voters in Pagosa Springs could face a referendum of their own: residents of town and county dissatisfied with a town council repeal of restrictions on “Big Box” construction could put an issue before the voters asking that restrictions be reinstated.

This is what government by initiative is all about, isn’t it? If you are dissatisfied with the actions of your elected leaders, demand a vote on your favorite issue.

We believe this illustrates what is wrong with most government by initiative.

Wrong, because the voters have already spoken — in their election of leaders in a representative government. And wrong because, indulged too often, the initiative/referendum process undermines representative government.

We believe in the concept of representative government, with citizens selected by the voters to make decisions based on a better and deeper understanding of issues — an understanding most voters have neither the time, the resources, nor the energy to develop.

We are aware of the problems inherent in representative government — in particular at the federal level where undue influence and big money too often rule the day. But the concept is the best we’ve got. In a culture in which fewer people read, and very few read long and well — a culture in which more and more information is garnered with rapid-fire clicks on a computer mouse and from Web sites and television shows that care little about accuracy and confirmation — the notion of pervasive government by initiative is ominous. If you have any question about the effect of such methods and sources, read a letters to the editor column in any newspaper.

If choices made by elected officials do not suit you, and you believe you know better — in particular at the local level —run for office, or elect someone to replace those you believe to be in the wrong. It is only with quality elected leadership that representative government works well, and it is only with quality leadership that the system can be reformed and refined. The alternative of government by initiative and referendum, with very few exceptions, is a poor idea. Karl Isberg