John Tsarpalas: The Commonwealthy podcast, training people who understand the benefits of small, limited government to win elections. This is episode number eight, initiatives and referendums. Today I am going to be talking to my friend, Paul Jacob, who I consider the absolute leader in the world of initiative and referendum rights for our side. Paul and I will discussing types of referendums, initiatives, and the basics of the process.
And you might ask the question how is this germane to getting on the ballot and running for election. Bear in mind that not only can you move the political ball forward by passing initiatives and referendums, but initiatives and referendums are used in political campaigns to help drive out the vote and create interest among certain groups.
Probably the thing I’m most familiar with is the Bush campaign. In 2000, George Bush barely won and did not win the popular vote. And I happened to be invited to a small gathering- it was sort of a thank you for Republican activists- in 2000 at the White House. It was next to the White House actually, in the executive building there.
And it was Karl Rove talking to us. And he was extremely concerned and couldn’t figure out and didn’t know how to motivate people that were social conservatives. They didn’t show up in 2000. And that would have been the margin they needed.
Well, in 2004, if you remember, there were lots of Defend Marriage acts, initiatives, and referendums on a lot of states for the 2004 election. And that’s how Karl Rove got Christian conservatives to come out to vote. And as long as they were voting for the act, then they also voted for George Bush. But just coming out for George Bush was not enough to motivate them.
So consider how initiatives and referendums can help you with your turnout in different situations. If you are running for a school board and there is a referendum for a tax increase or a bond issue, will that help you? Hurt you?
So I wanted to bring this topic up so you are aware of it, got an idea of how it works, and how it fits in. And think about how that might work locally for you. And also think about how you can change things locally by doing things through the initiative process.
Well I’d like to welcome my friend, Paul Jacob, president of the Liberty Initiative Fund. Paul and I go back a few years and I consider Paul the expert on all things initiative and referendum.
Paul, you go way back with I and R. When did you start in that realm?
Paul Jacob: Well, you know the first initiative I got involved in was in your home state, John, of Illinois. I worked on the tax accountability amendment. We gathered half a million signatures to put it on the ballot. It made the ballot, but then was sued and blocked from the ballot. The voters didn’t get a chance to decide. And of course the tax situation is none the better for that.
So the first experience was disappointing. But after 1990, I got very involved in term limits. We put term limits on the ballot all over the country in several states. Nebraska, for instance, term limits was voted on four separate times. It won every time, but there would be some lawsuit or technicality. In some states we had numerous term limit initiatives.
Also all over the country at the local level because we were able to do almost all the twenty-four states that have the initiative process. Sixteen of them have a constitutional amendment process. So there are some that don’t have a constitutional amendment process were we couldn’t do something like term limits. Not only do you have almost half the country that has the initiative, at least some level of it, but you also have most of the cities and towns and counties in the country have an initiative process.
So at both the state and local level there is a lot of opportunity for citizens to say, “You know what? We don’t like the way this policy is being done. We want to change something about our government.” We have every ability in our hands and all it takes is writing up an initiative. Often you would want a lawyer involved in that. And finding out the rules. And then doing the hard work of pounding the pavement and asking your neighbors, your workers, your fellow citizens to sign a petition. And put it on the ballot and let’s vote.
John Tsarpalas: So give us some examples of local initiative that’s happening now or that you have done in the past so people get an idea of what they can work on, what can happen.
Paul Jacob: You know, I mentioned term limits. And the referendum process could be used. You could lower your city’s taxes. You could stop a tax increase. That’s often times what happens. At Liberty Initiative Fund, we look at three areas. And obviously people can do things on all kinds of different issues, and they can do it from perspectives that you and I may not like so much just as well as they can do it from our perspective.
But the kinds of things we work on really fall into three categories. One is holding government accountable, particularly holding politicians accountable. And that’s all kinds of ethics reforms, term limits, other campaign reforms. It’s things like pension reform.
So many of these cities and states and counties around the country have made promises to pay pension benefits that just have not put the money away to pay and they are digging a huge hole. And that’s all about accountable government. So we’ve worked quite a bit.
There’s a pension reform measure that will be on the ballot in Phoenix, Arizona this November. There have been a number of measures that have won on the ballot in California. Some places in the country have worse pension problems than others. Almost all of them have a problem. So that’s an area.
We also look at ways to give people a vote on any tax increase or spending increases. Something that Colorado’s done, the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, through the initiative could also be done at the local level. It could be done in other states. So those are the kind of things that would hold the government more accountable.
We also look to fight what I would call crony capitalism. And often times big sports from the NFL to Major League Baseball- I’m a huge sports fan, but I just can’t see with as many sports fans as there are in this country that we can’t pay our own way, that we have to force people who don’t have anything to do with sports, who don’t happen to like sports to pay a bunch of tax dollars to fund our stadiums. It seems like a silly subsidy, and it’s a subsidy going to billionaires for the most part.
And so we work with people. And of course this is a great issue that cuts across the political spectrum. And work to put those sort of sweetheart deals on the ballot. Let’s let the voters decide whether they want to hand a bunch of money to a billionaire sports team owner or to anyone else for that matter.
There have been several initiatives in different cities that have said that if the city government provides more benefits than tax abatements or subsidies then a million dollars, which is a pretty big sack of benefits, then that would have to go to a vote of the people. So that’s another area that I think is really ripe. It’s something we work on, but it’s really something you could work on no matter where you are in the political spectrum, and that is fighting some of these crony capitalist deals.
And I would say another thing that falls into that is providing some protection against eminent domain abuse. The abuse of eminent domain, which is the power of the government, to take private property for public use was always envisioned as somebody’s land sits right where you have to put a highway through or where you have to have power lines for everybody and you need a right of way across that person’s property.
People can quibble theoretically about whether that’s just and fair, but it’s part of the Constitution. And the one thing we are to all agree upon is there ought to be very strict limits on that. And instead we have a government all across the country at the local and state level that is consistently taking people’s private property so they can flip it to some big development so somebody else can make more money and pay them higher tax revenue.
That’s the kind of thing we like to work with people on and really gets at the heart of the difference between free market capitalism, where we are all able to produce and trade and work together in a marketplace economy, and crony capitalism, where the government picks winners and losers and has all kinds of rules to stomp on the little guy while lifting up the big guy.
And the last area that we work on is protecting our civil liberties. One area that has got a lot of news coverage lately, but it has been going on for decades, is civil asset forfeiture, where the police can basically take people’s cars and boats and money because they made some stop even when they don’t charge that person with any crime. And that person is forced to go to court and basically prove that their stuff, their car or their boat or their cash, is innocent.
And there has been all kinds of cases where people who have a grocery store and they’ve a lot of cash that comes in. They are on their way to the bank to deposit that cash and they are stopped. And they have $10,000 taken from them that takes years to get back if they can get it back at all. And often times it costs them more in legal feels to get back their money than the money that was stolen. And that’s what it is- stolen. So it goes against the whole idea of innocent until proven guilty. And it’s just un-American.
That’s the kind of thing that people can deal with at their local level through the initiative. They can do it statewide. And that’s something that we have not been involved in these issues here before and we are looking to get involved in them in a big way in 2015 and ’16 and beyond.
I think one thing that we’ve suggested and we’re working with people in different places to bring this about is putting cameras on police. We see that as just a common sense way to solve a problem. A lot of people that think that any police brutality is far too much. But people who tend to say, “Hey, we’ve got to do something about police brutality,” well, there is nothing better than to have a video to show what happened and what didn’t happen.
And of course if you are a person who says, “Hey, I think the police are doing a great job and this is the rare occurrence,” well, if they have video evidence, you are going to have police exonerated when they are in the right.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Paul Jacob: And there have been recent cases on both sides of that issue. So it’s just good government.
John Tsarpalas: Yeah.
Paul Jacob: But it all goes a long way to protecting our liberties. So those are the three areas that we focus on: holding government accountable, fighting crony capitalism, and protecting our liberties.
John Tsarpalas: Wow, there is a lot here. Just my thoughts on the cameras on police, the other thing is it might slow police down knowing someone is watching. So I mean it also has that effect as well.
Paul Jacob: And there have been studies, John, that show exactly that. Complaints against police go down where cameras are instituted. Crime does not go up. And I think you are going to find a lot of police beginning to endorse this approach as well. In fact, in Washington, D.C. they are right now looking at what types of cameras work best and running a little pilot program, looking to make it something they do full time.
In Ferguson, they have actually already purchased cameras. They just never have used them. We are looking for folks to get involved doing an initiative there that requires them to use those cameras.
But Ferguson, everybody’s heard about it because it was the top of the news for weeks. But these same things are happening in places all over the country, in all kinds of different communities. And the solution is not to blame all police everywhere. It’s not to basically say, “Look, everybody’s a suspected criminal, therefore the police should run wild.” It’s to have common sense solutions that will come from average folks who get involved in politics and are looking for those types of solutions. And a camera is relatively inexpensive and good protection for both the police and the public.
John Tsarpalas: So where does the local activist start? Okay, you listen to this podcast and you think, “Boy, I’d like to do something about having police in my town having cameras on their cars. I don’t like how things are going here and I worry.” Where would they start? How would they look up and find out if they even have a right to do an initiative in their town?
Paul Jacob: Well, you know, John, years ago I might have said call your county clerk. But half the times the county clerk doesn’t know they have an initiative process, unless it was used recently. Sometimes these processes are on the books for decades without anybody doing an initiative. One, they are a little bit complicated in terms of getting the legal wording down. They can be a little complicated in terms of understanding all the rules. And of course, if you are doing an initiative that’s powerful for the people and the city doesn’t want you to do, they are going to stick to those rules and try to do everything they can.
So it doesn’t hurt to call the county clerk and get whatever information you can. But I’d urge you to give us a call at Liberty Initiative Fund. If it’s an initiative that’s trying to take away somebody’s liberty, we’re not going to be any help because that’s not what we do. But if it’s an initiative whereby you are going to enhance liberty and hold government accountable and protect people’s rights, we’ll do everything we can to help you.
And we can help by putting you in touch with the right legal people or helping you find the right legal person in your community who can help draft a measure. We can help you walk through what is sometimes a pretty bad maze of rules and regulations about how the initiative process works.
And we can give you some good advice I think. I don’t want to put too much into that. But we’ve been through a lot of these campaigns, so in terms of how to run the campaign, how to message your issue, all kinds of things like that I think we can be of help.
John Tsarpalas: Okay, we’ll include the phone number here at the end of the podcast. We’ll also have it up on our website on the show notes for this podcast so people can give you guys a call. And if you’ve got a website, we’ll include all of that.
So they give you a call, you give them so idea if this can be done, and say it can be done. What are sort of the steps? I mean, you go to the attorney, you draft the language, then what? Then it’s a petition process? Is it always a petition process? Are there different situations, etc.? Walk us through what it is like. What are the steps?
Paul Jacob: For an initiative, it is always going to be a petition process. If you don’t have the petition process, you can lobby your city council or your state legislature. We’ve been involved in those efforts before, but we tend to specialize in the petition process and the initiative and referendum process.
You’ve got your idea. You think this is the way to solve the problem. The first thing to do is to talk to everybody you know who will give you some feedback and get a feel if this is the right way to solve the problem. Are there other ways to solve the problem? Who else is tried to solve this problem who might be sympathetic to your political views?
And really educate yourself as to is this the right solution? And I’m not saying spend two or three years. Life is short. But do spend two or three weeks talking to people (and most times it’s longer than that) about your idea. Educate yourself.
Then I think the next thing to do is to find out the rules and regulations of your local initiative process. Once you have that, it’s going to give you a better feel to then go to an attorney and get your idea drafted. And in some cases there’s modern language around. There may have been a bill in the legislature that dealt with it. So often times there’s some help legally out there and we can help you find that. And smart people find these things on their own, even if without us, if they do a little research. It’s out there.
John Tsarpalas: Let me interrupt you for a minute. So if this was me, I’d start talking to people about this. And I would also ask them, “Can I include you on an email group?” and I’d start a little email group and give an update once a week, once a month. And start seeing who would be interested in volunteering or helping put a little money into this. Maybe I am jumping the gun. I don’t know. What do you think?
Paul Jacob: No, you aren’t jumping the gun there. And of course as you are talking to people, you are trying to hone your idea and make sure you’ve got the right issue and it’s going to be drafted in the right way. But of course, you are trying to build your committee and your little posse from day one. What you are looking for people to do is not just help you think it through, but also help you do the hard work and write a check here and there.
Because often times even if you go out and get the signatures all volunteer, which is a lot of work… People raise some money to hire people who can spend more time out there than some of us working stiffs can to get those signatures. But even if you got all the signatures volunteer, literature, getting the word out, programs that help you communicate with your growing list of supporters. As you pointed out, you want to right away get their email address and contact information and begin communicating with them. It all takes money.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Paul Jacob: So don’t be shy. And smart people who want things to happen, they know it costs money, too. So don’t be shy about asking your friends, your neighbors, other people if they care about this. “Here’s what we need. I need your help. I need some work, some time, and I need some money to help make this happen.”
John Tsarpalas: And think about possible coalitions or people that have invested interest in helping. And also be mindful of who might be opposing you and you are up against. I know that fighting property tax increase here in Illinois, we’ve often gone to large property owners. Auto dealers were often a good place to go because they have big, big areas and their property taxes are high and they have cash flow. And we could kind of talk auto dealers into writing check to help fight a tax increase.
So you need to think those thoughts through about who would be with you. And you will be shocked at who will be against you. Sometimes it’s amazing that both parties and everybody seems to be against you on something.
Paul Jacob: And initiatives are rarely something that the powers that be are enthusiastically in favor of. Because if they were, they would have passed it through the city council. The state legislature would have dealt with the issue. So you do have to be careful.
And it’s good to know who your enemies are as well as your friends. Because there have been cases where someone is going to do a certain initiative and they are going around asking support and they haven’t really thought through who their likely friends and enemies are going to be. And they go sit down with their enemies and tell them their whole game plan. And their enemies will use that against them.
And so often in the initiative process, you are up against the most powerful forces in government. There are times when initiatives have both the Chamber of Commerce and big labor against them. I cut my teeth doing term limits. And basically you couldn’t find a person or a lobbyist in the capital who was for it.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Paul Jacob: And neither political party was for it at first. And then of course even when the Republicans were for it that meant that Republican rank and file was for it, but you still had a lot of politicians who couldn’t stand the idea.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Paul Jacob: So you do want to assess where is my natural level of support? Who is for sure going to be for this? And like you are saying, with property taxes, it’s fairly easy to figure that out. And sometimes with ethics reforms or term limits or those sorts of reform issues, it’s pretty easy to figure out who your enemies are going to be; it’s going to be the people that are in power and the special interests that are propping them up.
John Tsarpalas: Yeah. It’s the old saying, “Politics makes strange bed fellows.” So you have to be careful who you are talking to. But in that early stage, you are talking about there is this problem and what can we do about it, you are safer there until you get a little closer to the nitty gritty I would think.
So they get some legal advice. They get a petition drafted. And then they are trying to pull together their committee and help. And they are going to get this thing circulated and get enough signatures. Is that the biggest problem? Or that’s just the beginning of the problems?
Paul Jacob: Well, if you don’t get over it, it’s the biggest problem. If you do get over it, it’s like one of these video games where it keeps getting tougher as you go up the levels. One of the things I’d advise before you file that petition is to plan not only the petition drive, which does need to be planned out. How much time do you have? What events are there? How many people do I need to get out? You want to have all those things worked out before you hit the streets. And if you can think you can only get a certain number of volunteers and you are going to have to pay to get the other signatures, you want to raise that money before you start.
John Tsarpalas: Sure.
Paul Jacob: And have your ducks in a row. But I would not just plan the petition drive, which often times is the toughest part. But I would plan through the whole. I’d start at Election Day for the election your petition is going to be on… And remember if you are at the local level, often times that’s not going to be voted on during a general election. It’s going to be voted on at a special election or a local election ballot that’s not going to have quite as many voters.
So that’s another thing the more sophisticated are going to look at what ballot do I want to be on. And most issues I’ve worked on, I’ve always wanted to be on the ballot where the most voters are coming out. But that’s something to keep in mind.
The campaign itself needs to not be an after thought. It’s so tough to get these measures on the ballot and to jump through all the hoops that sometimes, John as you know, that’s what happens. You get on the ballot and then people look up completely exhausted saying, “What do I do now?” And of course often times their opponents, who are well heeled organized political operatives, haven’t broken a sweat and they can put money together very quickly. And they are ready for the campaign. And the proponents of the idea are not so ready.
So I think before you get to the point where you file that petition, you have to have looked at the election day and worked your way back, planning the whole thing out. And I’m somebody who believes a plan is always good to have so you know what you are not doing or supposed to be doing that maybe you are not doing. I don’t think you have to be hemmed in by a plan. “Oh, we have to do exactly what the plan said.”
But you plan because you want to have some sense of what the future is likely to bring. And then you can always adjust those plans. You can always abandon certain parts of those plans that as time goes on just don’t make sense anymore. But it’s always good to have that initial plan as something that you can look at, that can help guide you, and that at least when you are veering outside of that plan, you are doing it consciously with your eyes open.
John Tsarpalas: Right. And you are running a campaign without a candidate. There’s a petition process and then there’s the whole media and getting the word out process. And then I would assume you are going to come up against the legal process, that they are going to fight this, they are going to try and throw it off the ballot, they are going to try to somehow say it is invalid. Am I in the right order so to speak?
Paul Jacob: Sure. You are in the right order. The legal stuff you do want to have an attorney who has helped you draft it. That attorney may or may not be somebody who litigates as well. But you are likely to face litigation. And so you want to have an attorney at the ready. You also want to raise money and tell some of your bigger supporters the risks that are out there. And that if it is sued, which often times is the case, you have to be prepared to defend it. That not only takes knowing an attorney, but it also takes having some people write checks because legal fees can add up. So that’s a big concern and it’s a good thing that you raise it.
I think when you think about not having a candidate, I think a lot of political consultants who work on candidate campaigns are just lethal. Not only do you not have a candidate who get themselves into trouble, but you don’t have the candidate’s wife who can yell at you when the candidate gets himself in trouble.
John Tsarpalas: That and the ego. You don’t have that ego to deal with it of a candidate.
Paul Jacob: It really is refreshing. However, you do have faces that you’ve got to put forward. Ideas aren’t just going to walk into a room by itself and start talking. People have to do that. And I think one of the beautiful things about the initiative is that it tends to be people who are tremendously credible. They are not in this to win some public office for themselves. They are not in it to somehow feather their bed, their particular industry, their company, them personally. They are giving up of their time to do something as a public service.
And when I think the average voter sees these people in the newspaper, on television, they hear them on the radio, there is just a great ring to what they are saying. And I think folks give them a tremendous amount of legitimacy because they are coming from the right places as citizens who are trying to do what they think will help their city.
John Tsarpalas: Right.
Paul Jacob: And so I do think it’s a way for people who want to be politically active to put in some work that raises their positives. I think on the other hand, people who say, “Gee, I am going to do an initiative and use that as a spring board for my campaign,” that’s a much tougher deal. I think Rauner…
John Tsarpalas: In Illinois, yeah.
Paul Jacob: I think he did it about as well as you can do it. He didn’t make it his whole campaign. He didn’t say, “Vote for me because I put term limits on the ballot.” But he really helped the term limits cause. He was coming from a position where he’s not a politician; he’s bee a business guy. And so he was more believable. I think he did it about as well as you can do it. But I think often times it doesn’t work very well because you are taking some of the big plusses I think in the minds of voters, which is that these are people that aren’t in it for some ulterior motive.
John Tsarpalas: Right. They’re there to do something good for their community or fix right or wrong, fix a problem.
Paul Jacob: And I see these folks all over the country who do this. Just the power. You know the old phrase, “Speak truth to power”? That’s what these folks are doing and it’s beautiful to watch.
I was out in Ventura County, California at seven a.m. one morning a few months ago. They were doing a pension reform initiative with ten different people sitting in that office at seven a.m., working overtime, knowing that they then have to go to their real jobs, and doing it because they believed in something. They wanted to fix the pension problem in their county, which is just devastating county government. And you could just look to person after person. They were smart. They were engaged. And they were doing it all pro bono for the people of Ventura County.
And I think that’s exactly what we want. I was there. I do this for a living so in essence I was paid to be there. But it just warms your heart to see that sort of gathering of individuals coming together to do something good. And I see it all the time, all over the country.
And I’m convinced America is not going to take back some of the freedoms that maybe we’ve lost and it’s not going to keep the freedoms we have because someone rides in on a white horse to be the next president or the next U.S. senator or the next governor or the next mayor. We are going to rise or fall by how many regular folks come together in meeting rooms like that one in Ventura County or like the meeting rooms that are going on right now in Arkansas fighting Issue 3, which is an anti-term limits measure, or all these other folks who I see come together. That’s our solution.
Anyone out there who asks me, “Gee, I want freedom. Who do I vote for?” they’re asking the wrong question. There is no one you can vote for who is going to usher in freedom. Even if you elect the most pro-freedom candidate, he or she can’t do it by themselves. They need the environment of an engaged public who says, “Wait a second. We have certain principles in this country and we’re going to protect them. And we’re going to expand them where people make them muddy and fuzzy.” That’s our solution.
So I’m hoping when this podcast airs, John, that we are going to have thousands of calls to Liberty Initiative Fund and that none of them are going to say, “Who do I vote for to get freedom?” They are going to say, “I’m here. I’m reporting for duty. I want freedom. And I am going to make it happen myself in the great do-it-yourself American tradition.”
John Tsarpalas: Perfectly said. So how do they find you? What’s the website? What’s the phone number?
Paul Jacob: The website is libertyifund.org. They can also call. And why go online? Pick up the phone right that second that you hear us and give us a call at 571-659-2320. And my extension, if you want to get right to me, is 226.
John Tsarpalas: Okay, great. And he’s right; pick up the phone. Call them, even if you don’t have something in mind. Get on their radar and let Liberty Initiative know you are out there. There’s so much to be done and the only way we are going to do it is if each one of us takes on a little piece of this. There’s five hundred thousand elected offices in America. Five hundred thousand. How many taxing bodies there are I don’t know. But we’ve all got to do a little bit and do our bit.
Paul, it was a pleasure to have you today. Thank you so much for being here on Commonwealthy. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Paul Jacob: John, thanks for having me. Always a pleasure to talk to you.
John Tsarpalas: Well, I hope you got a few ideas on the initiative and referendum process and how it works. All the info is in the show notes at commonwealthy.com/initiative-and-referendum. And of course, if you’d like to tell your friends about us, please pass on the word. A review on iTunes would really help us out. And we’ll talk to you next week. Thanks.
Paul Jacob: “I’m here. I’m reporting for duty. I want freedom. And I am going to make it happen myself in the great do-it-yourself American tradition.”