Ohio lawmakers have reason to be concerned that the state constitution is getting cluttered.
But they also bear part of the blame for the number of constitutional amendments being proposed by citizen-driven efforts in recent years. When those we elect fail to address a public issue or cause through legislation, citizens should call them on it and go through the channels to get the matter before voters.
Since 1912, citizens have had the right to initiate amendments to the state constitution.
The process, by design, takes considerable effort. Hundreds of thousands of signatures are needed to even get a proposal to the ballot, and a majority of voters must approve it before it’s added to the constitution.
In 106 years, 71 initiatives have made the ballot, but only 19 have passed. In the most recent attempt, in November, voters turned down Issue 1, a proposed amendment that would have decriminalized many drug offenses.
But even though less than 1 in 3 issues have been approved, lawmakers are suddenly in a rush to make the process more difficult.
Just-introduced House Joint Resolution 19 would require an initiated constitutional amendment to gain 60 percent of the vote to win approval, not just a simple majority.
It would also move up the deadline for amendment backers to submit petitions and also shorten the time frame for backers to collect the signatures needed to make the ballot.
In addition, petition signatures would only be valid for 180 days.
Some are concerned about the number of attempts to amend the constitution in recent years by deep-pocketed, out-of-state interests. Rightfully so. Certainly, no one should be able to buy an amendment.
At the same time, grassroots efforts should not be denied.
The main idea behind HJR 19 seems to encourage citizens to pursue initiated statutes instead of constitutional amendments. (In the statutes process, a law is proposed to voters instead of an amendment.)
While there may be merit in making it more difficult to amend the constitution and easier to advance a law, changes to either process need careful consideration so the proper balance is struck.
Direct democracy is an important ideal and a necessary check and balance on state government. When lawmakers fail to act, citizens must retain the right to intervene.
Instead of rushing HJR 19 through during the lame-duck session, lawmakers should revisit the matter next year so a full debate can be held.
Earlier this week, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Ohio and numerous other groups signed a letter against HJR 19 in Columbus, stating: “Without the ability to bring policies directly to the people through the ballot, Ohio citizens are unable to act on issues of grave importance that elected officials have otherwise ignored.”
Fortunately, even if lawmakers push on with HJR 19, voters will get the final say. As a proposed constitutional amendment, it would require statewide approval.