Silenced Majority

NY Times, June 2, 1997
Gov. George Pataki has yet to weigh in on the proposal by Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President, for a citywide referendum on rent regulations. One might think he would embrace it: In his inaugural address he advocated new laws allowing New Yorkers the kind of voter initiative and referendum enjoyed in 23 other states.

But the Governor has backed away from his early enthusiasm for direct democracy. And even with his support, Ms. Messinger's worthy proposal would not see the light of day: Rent laws are under the jurisdiction of the State Legislature, which is unlikely to give the city jurisdiction.

Still, the debate over rents touches on a fundamental problem in New York politics: the hopelessly archaic state laws and local restrictions on voter initiatives and referendums.

Ballot measures initiated by petition began cropping up a century ago; the Progressives used them to circumvent the railroad barons' stranglehold on many legislatures. But New York never enacted laws to allow statewide measures, depriving us of a strong tool to combat gridlock in Albany.

And although New York's municipalities can enact local laws by voter initiative, it is often nearly impossible to get measures on the local ballot. In New York City, the courts have ruled that voters can use the process to amend the City Charter, but not to express mere policy preferences. Thus we can vote on governance issues like term limits, but not on, say, where the Yankees should play ball.

Moreover, the requirements for amending the Charter are ridiculously onerous: 45,000 signatures of registered voters must be submitted months before the election, and all the signers must have registered to vote at least a full year earlier.

Fortunately, in November New Yorkers will vote on whether to hold a convention to amend the State Constitution. If there is one, it could enact the right to have statewide petition-generated referendums. The Constitution could also be amended to relax restrictions on local referendums.

If the Constitution is changed, we would need certain safeguards. Strict spending limits on groups sponsoring initiatives would be vital, as would some sort of judicial review to insure that no proposal could tamper with our constitutional and civil rights. Signature requirements should be tough enough to keep out frivolous initiatives, but not prohibitively strict.

It is time for New Yorkers to stop sitting on the sidelines of democracy.

Jerry H. Goldfeder, a Democratic district leader in Manhattan, is a member of the New York City Bar Association's committee on election law.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company