CARMEL – When I was a mere tender lad of 17, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a program offered through the YMCA. The program was called Youth in Government and it was a popular event offered throughout Indiana.  

Essentially, Youth in Government allowed high school students the opportunity to participate in government without all of the blood, toil, sweat and tears. Local clubs came together in Indianapolis to elect state officials at a convention and then spent two days participating as either a state representative or a state senator.

The big difference in our political deliberations was that it was a non-partisan event. There weren’t Republican or Democrat candidates nor legislation. One of the most attractive parts of participating in the legislature was that if your bill was passed by both houses and signed by the governor, then it would be presented to the real Indiana State General Assembly.

I crafted two pieces of legislation that ultimately passed. The first was a bill that enabled drivers to make a right hand turn on a red light after coming to a complete stop. Mind you, this was 1971 and keeping your car moving was very popular with teenage drivers. This bill passed overwhelmingly.  

The second bill also passed but was a little bit more touch and go. This bill would enable Indiana citizens to either directly bring forth issues for the public to vote on or would enable the Legislature to bring issues to the people. My bill was euphemistically called, “The People’s Democratic Decisions Bill.” We know this legislation in other states as referendums, direct initiatives, propositions or ballot questions. They are the most democratic actions you can take, except for direct elections (presidential elections excluded).

While 49 states have a process to allow referendums to decide state constitutional amendments, Indiana included, only 26 states allow the process to go any further.  Essentially, some states may have issues put directly on ballots by reaching a certain number of petition signatures or their legislature may vote to put a controversial piece of legislation up for a vote by their constituents. A few states start the process with a citizen petition, send it to the legislature for consideration or review and then the issue goes directly onto a ballot.

In recent memory, Indiana citizens received the right to vote on a constitutional amendment for controlling property taxes. The legislation first passed two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly without change and then was presented to the voters in 2010. This was a heated issue that many times cut across party lines. Not one major poll came close to the final result when the votes were tallied. Seventy-two percent of Hoosiers voted to cap property tax rates. Hooray for Democracy!

Unfortunately for the good folks of the Hoosier State, amending the Indiana Constitution is the only way we get to directly vote on an issue, unless you consider a provision in Indiana law that allows citizens in school districts conduct a referendum when a school spending proposition will push the local residential tax rate above 1%. We generally see this type of a referendum when a school develops delusions of grandeur and decides that building a massive sports complex with every conceivable buzzer and bell demands that the public open their wallets. Most, but not all, of these types of referendums pass because they are usually phrased as in the realm of providing quality educations and remaining competitive with the Chinese and whichever aliens are flying those little zigzag ticktack thingies that drive our Navy crazy.

Critics of direct initiatives, like Rep. Bufford R. Bugtussle of Bloomfield, Ind., state that direct initiatives and referendums interfere in the democratic process. Well, why elect and pay representatives if you are just going to go over their heads when they spend all their time negotiating important legislation like arming kindergarten students with AR15s or giving each citizen in Marion County 40 acres and a mule?  

You know why and I know why and, most certainly, our legislative bodies know why. The ugly truth is that powerful lobbies just can’t exercise their considerable influence when issues go directly to the voters. Much as I would like free meals, sports tickets or vacations paid for by the Brotherhood of Buggy Makers or the Chamber of Greedy Capitalist Pigs, it just isn’t going to happen. You can spend a hundred thousand dollars here and there and influence 40 or 50 legislators, but it is much more costly and public to try and influence a referendum.

I bring the subject of a referendum or direct initiative up because of our General Assembly’s recent passage of abortion legislation. Abortion is an incredibly divisive issue that has eaten away at the fabric of our society for 50 years. Whichever side of the abortion issue you were on, the fact is that the legislation was passed by an overwhelmingly male-dominated General Assembly. These legislators purport to represent their constituents, but do we absolutely know that they do? Reading accounts of the final passage of the legislation led me to believe that no one was totally satisfied with the outcome. What a wonderful opportunity to allow the citizens of Indiana a chance to directly vote on the issue!

I don’t know about you, but I was gobsmacked when the State of Kansas put the issue of abortion to their citizens and the citizens voted nearly two to one to allow women to decide for themselves when it comes to reproductive rights. I would have expected the exact opposite result. My guess is that the Kansas Legislature would have passed an anti-abortion bill by a wide margin, if not for the referendum process.

Perhaps some future Indiana General Assembly, when faced with an extremely divisive issue, will take that issue directly to the Hoosier voter for the ultimate expression of democracy. It would require our Indiana Constitution to be amended in order to allow such a process. It can be done and should be done, but probably won’t get done.  What was democratic, popular and bi-partisan to a group of teenagers in 1971 at Hi-Y’s Youth in Government just doesn’t cut it when the big boys start playing high-priced poker with our futures. After all, who do these people think they are to ask for a show of hands on super critical issues? 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.