116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Maybe Iowa needs some more democracy.
Yes, we did just have a free and fair election. Voters’ voices were heard. Despite a few hiccups here and there, the election went pretty smoothly.
But as you looked across the nation on election night, it was hard not to be a little jealous.
In very red Nebraska, 58.5 percent of voters supported a ballot measure that will gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2026, and then increase the wage automatically based on the cost of living.
In very red Missouri, 53 percent of voters approved a ballot measure legalizing the purchase, possession, consumption, use, delivery, manufacture and sale of marijuana for adults over 21. Also, some marijuana offenders will be released from incarceration, parole or probation.
In Michigan, 56.7 percent of voters approved a ballot measure establishing a right to reproductive freedom in that state.
The difference between Iowa and these states is they have a process by which voters can petition for law changes or constitutional amendments and force a public vote. When the legislature and the powers that be refuse to act on laws people want, initiative and referendum allows the people to go around them. Iowa has no such process giving power to the people.
Consequently, although polls show a majority of Iowans want legal marijuana, or at least its decriminalization, Republicans who control the Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds refuse to even discuss those ideas. Our state still is stuck in 1990s drug war mode. Illinois also offers legal marijuana, but surely Iowans will resist the urge to travel east or south for weed. Yep, surely.
Iowa is one of 18 states with a minimum wage stuck at the federal level of $7.25 per hour for more than a decade. Nebraska will be at $15 in just more than three years. Missouri voters approved a $12 wage floor in 2018. Illinois also has a $12 minimum wage. Iowans would likely support a higher minimum wage, but Republican lawmakers have zero interest in an increase.
Polls also show a majority of Iowans favor access to legal abortions, but Republicans in Iowa are determined to put strict limits on reproductive freedom.
Yes, I’m fully aware allowing Iowans to petition for ballot measures surely will result in ideas I do not like. I used to be dead set against it. But when lawmakers’ positions on issues such as these have calcified to the point they no longer care what Iowans want, it could be beneficial for voters to give legislators a good shove out of the way.
Iowa does have votes on constitutional amendments, such as the one that just passed making it all but impossible to regulate firearms. But with constitutional amendments, we only get to vote on what the Legislature gives us. Maybe we keep the amendment process intact and create a way for voters to propose statutes for a public vote. I’m open to ideas.
We do elect a Legislature and governor to pass laws. But disconnect between policy issues and candidate preference has grown. Social and cultural factors seem to loom larger. It’s like asking a Cyclone fan to switch to the Hawkeyes because they offer a better defensive plan. Not going to happen.
But with a ballot measure, the policy issue is all that matters. For example, maybe voters who created the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would petition for a sales tax increase to fill it. Lawmakers have left it empty for more than a decade, ignoring the will of voters.
There’s also the small matter of Republicans hitting the mute button on public input.
Many candidates, especially Republicans, have backed away from participating in the traditional venues where they might face unscripted questions from the public or journalists — forums, debates, editorial board meetings, news conferences, etc. As I detailed in my Thursday column, Republicans have made it tougher for reporters to cover what lawmakers are up to at the Statehouse.
Sure, if you’re a big donor or part of a powerful interest group with the bucks needed to send a cadre of lobbyists to the Capitol every day, you might have an impact on legislative actions. Maybe throw a reception at a nice hotel. Lawmakers love free drinks and shrimp.
But most Iowans don’t stand a chance of affecting change once the legislative bulldozer starts rolling.
So giving the people an override switch to bypass legislative action and inaction now seems necessary, especially in a state ruled overwhelmingly by one party. It’s a party that’s made its living at the Statehouse by popping surprises no one saw coming before opposition can mobilize.
I know, initiative and referendum isn’t likely to happen in Iowa. It’s not the first hopeless cause I’ve championed. Nor the last.
But with all of the Republican campaign talk about “freedom,” and how great, smart and hardworking Iowans are, surely they’ll be on board with giving more power to the people. Unless those were just hollow platitudes for campaign season. Now they’ve got the power. Forget the people.
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