Staff Columnist

Too bad we can't call a vote

"I Voted" buttons lay in a bowl on the voting machine as voters case their ballots in the Iowa City Community School District's Revenue Purpose Statement at the Coralville Community Center on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, in Coralville, Iowa. At the 11am status phone call, the precinct had the most voters with 153. (Jim Slosiarek/Gazette-KCRG)

Last month Floridians voted overwhelmingly to restore voting rights for most felons who serve their sentences. In Iowa, one of just two states still requiring offenders to ask the governor for rights restoration, elected officials are being asked if they might follow Florida’s lead through legislation or an executive order. Stay tuned, says the governor.

As Iowa’s paltry medical cannabis program gets rolling, there’s been much discussion over the Legislature’s unwillingness to create a broader, more beneficial program. Polls show Iowans want it. Will we get it? Wait and see.

In recent days Republican Legislative leaders have said they might consider raising the sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, nearly a decade after 63 percent of Iowa voters approved its creation. Or maybe they won’t. Check back with the Statehouse sausage factory.

These aren’t the only issues where popular sentiment is no match for the Golden Dome of Wisdom’s selective inertia. Lawmakers can move like cheetahs when a friendly, powerful interest group wants something done. For the rest of us, well, these things take time.

It’s enough to make you wish Iowans could sidestep these dome-dwellers and put state issues directly on the ballot.

More than a century ago, Iowans nearly voted on adding an initiative and referendum process in the state constitution. Lawmakers approved an amendment resolution in 1913, but the proposal failed to gain required approval by the General Assembly in 1915. It passed the House 57-32 in April 1915, but it died without a Senate vote.

You might be thinking, “Hey, we elect a Legislature to do our lawmaking.” That’s certainly true. But legislative campaigns increasingly aren’t about real issues. Ads and mailings make nebulous mentions of policy, at best, and, at worst, bury rivals under a pile of misleading charges and outright falsehoods. You likely saw more ads featuring Nancy Pelosi this fall than any mention of the GOP’s actual state agenda. Candidates, especially Republican incumbents, now duck venues where they might be asked, on the record, to explain their positions.

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We know the just-elected, Republican-controlled General Assembly will pursue policies next year its members never mentioned during the campaign. And we know, based on the last two years, those surprises may become law with blazing swiftness. The notion Iowans can alter the course of those bills through opposition or outcry has become quaint.

So we’ve got a Legislature controlled by folks who didn’t run on issues, who love to spring surprises and who listen most intently to friendly interests that helped pay for those issue-free campaigns. It seems like a system that could use a people-powered, issue-centered safety valve.

Yeah, I agree, such a system would have drawbacks. Devils, details. See California. And ballot issue campaigns can be just as fact-free as any others.

I also know it’s not going to happen. Lawmakers won’t give up their monopoly. Heck, Republicans don’t even like elected local governments questioning their powerful purview.

Still, I think the idea might be popular. As if that matters.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.

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