The recall of Gov. Walker failed, in part, because many people were uncomfortable with removing him from office before the end of his term, despite their opposition to the policies that he and Republican legislators enacted. If the public is uncomfortable with recalling politicians for passing even the most divisive and overreaching legislation, what should we do when our government goes far beyond what most people consider reasonable?
In January, I will introduce a constitutional amendment to allow Wisconsin voters the option of popular referendum, so that instead of pursuing expensive recall elections of individuals, citizens can target their efforts and Recall the Law. Twenty-four states already have versions of the popular referendum. As currently envisioned, the requirements in my bill would be similar to our standards for recalling officeholders, and are significantly more stringent than those in states like Ohio and California.
• Supporters would need to gather signatures equal to 25 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.
• The signatures would have to be collected within 60 days.
• If enough signatures are turned in, voters would approve or reject the law in a statewide referendum.
The petition drive to overturn a law would have to be initiated within 90 days after the law is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. The law in question would be put on hold while the efforts to overturn it are under way. The referendum would be scheduled for the next regular general election — it would not expend taxpayer money on special elections. If voters approve the law, it takes effect as scheduled. If voters reject the law, it is voided and does not take effect.
Adopting the popular referendum would not create the kind of direct legislation that exists in California. Under my proposal, Wisconsin citizens could repeal a law that has already passed, but they would not be able to propose new legislation. Furthermore, Recall the Law could not be used to oppose tax levies, budgets, emergency acts, or any laws that “expand or promote the rights of the people.”
This reform would reinstate a much-needed system of checks and balances in our legislative branch. It is evident that some state legislators are more influenced by what lobbyists and campaign contributors want than by what their constituents want. Recall the Law would not only give the public the power to repeal unwanted legislation, it would compel lawmakers to consider citizen input before creating overreaching policies in the first place. After all, legislators are elected to represent their constituents.
Wisconsin is experiencing a degree of “recall fatigue,” and that has prompted proposals for so-called recall reform that would drastically curtail our constitutional right to hold elected officials accountable. A Recall the Law option would serve a similar purpose as recalling elected officials, but would be significantly less expensive and more focused.
A popular referendum would center debate on a specific policy, not on individual lawmakers. It would foster dialogue about the contentious law itself, without prompting personal attacks and divisive arguments. If the public had had the power to repeal the contentious collective bargaining law last year, perhaps there would have been no legislative or gubernatorial recall elections.
Contrary to recent statements from Rep. Robin Vos, recalling laws would not become commonplace. Supporters would have to meet a high threshold for signatures gathered within a short time frame. It would be a waste of any group’s time and resources to include popular referenda in their legislative strategies. Recall the Law should and would be reserved for laws that are so deeply unpopular that a statewide citizen movement is inspired to repeal them.
I hope that the majority party will give this issue the public hearings it deserves, and encourage all citizens to contact their legislators with feedback in the coming months. It is an initiative worth discussing.
Terese Berceau, a Democrat from Madison, represents the 76th District in the Wisconsin Assembly.
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