- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - From raising the minimum wage to legalizing medical marijuana, some bills in the Iowa Legislature face an uphill battle that isn’t so steep in some other statehouses.

Two dozen states have a system that allows residents to bypass lawmakers and place proposed initiatives on an election ballot. The system varies by state, but the idea is that if lawmakers won’t take action, citizens should have an option B when it comes to enacting potential laws.

Several states legalized gay marriage through such initiatives before the U.S. Supreme Court made a final ruling last year. In neighboring Nebraska, residents who oppose the Legislature’s recent ban on the death penalty gathered signatures to place the issue before voters this November.

Iowa doesn’t have such a system, though it wasn’t without trying in the early 1900s. Today, its nonexistence means Iowa lawmakers face less pressure to pass certain bills even if they are popular with voters - a setup that could be frustrating for citizens seeking action.

When the Nebraska State AFL-CIO helped collect more than 134,000 signatures to place an initiative to increase that state’s minimum wage, it came after years of little movement in the Legislature. The initiative, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2014, led to gradually increasing Nebraska’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour in 2016.

“It was just time to do something about the minimum wage, because it had not been changed for so many years,” said Susan Martin, president of the group, who noted the benefits of such an opportunity.

Still, Iowa lawmakers behind some contentious legislation said they generally appreciate Iowa’s system - even if it means voters don’t have another option when lawmakers fail to take action on legislation dealing with abortions, guns and right to die by prescribed medication.

“There’s issues in a number of areas where sometimes the people’s voice, that we know by polling and so forth, is not being heard here,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, who supports measures that would counter wage theft and increase the state’s minimum wage. “At those kinds of things, yes, you wish there was a referendum. And then when there’s things that you don’t necessarily like, you’re glad that the legislature has some control.”

States that have an initiative system allow residents to change laws or amend their state constitution. Those with a referendum system let residents petition new laws approved by state legislatures. Some states allow both initiatives and referendums.

South Dakota was the first state to adopt the initiative process in 1898, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mississippi was the last in 1992.

Iowa’s legislature attempted to add an initiative system, according to state records. The 35th General Assembly passed a measure in 1913. But making changes to the Iowa constitution requires additional approval, and the following General Assembly didn’t take it up for a vote.

Citizen-led efforts for such initiatives have grown over the last few decades, according to a 2002 National Conference of State Legislatures report. There were more than 180 statewide votes on initiatives in the 1970s. That more than doubled in the 1990s.

It’s become a large part of the legislative process in states like California, where supporters of 68 measures have been cleared to begin collecting signatures for the November 2016 election, and another six have already qualified.

One drawback of such systems is the growing campaign costs. Wendy Underhill, program director at NCSL, said some states can have more than a dozen initiatives on a ballot, leaving it to voters to sort through campaign claims and make decisions.

“From a citizen’s perspective, that’s a lot of decision-making to do, a lot of choices to make,” she said.

Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, led an effort last session to pass a comprehensive gun bill that would update rules on some gun permits and remove an age limit on the use of handguns with direct parental supervision. The bill failed last session, but Windschitl has introduced a series of bills this session that would accomplish some of the changes.

Despite the setbacks, Windschitl said he opposes an initiative system. He argued that while a potential measure could be popular, it may not be properly vetted through the public.

“They haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to have the more thorough discussions on topics like we do down here, through the subcommittee and committee process,” he said.

Windschitl recommended one more option for Iowans disillusioned with the process in place.

“Everybody in the House is up for re-election. Half the Senate is up for re-election,” he said. “That’s our opportunity.”

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