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Experts: Ballot measures in NY could create tough ethics laws

New York politicians competing to write tough ethics laws are omitting a weapon that political experts say has been effective against public corruption in other states -- citizen ballot initiatives.

Initiatives are measures drafted by individuals, groups and companies that go before voters if enough sign petitions in support.

Political scientists say citizens write tougher anti-corruption measures than elected officials, who don't want to relinquish power or lose their seats.

California has one of the nation's most powerful initiative processes, and voters used it to curb gerrymandering. A nonpartisan commission, created after a series of initiatives, drew its first redistricting maps in 2011, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan research group.

Last year, supporters of nonpartisan redistricting -- including the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch -- criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for letting the State Legislature keep control of redistricting in return for a lower-cost tier of pension benefits for public workers.

"If New York State had the initiative . . . the voters of New York could pass a neutral, nonpartisan redistricting commission, the way California has," said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a nonpartisan newsletter that focuses on "restrictive" ballot access laws.

Citizens in 24 states can put initiatives on the ballot, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

It would be necessary to amend the state constitution to bring ballot initiatives to New York, said Janai S. Nelson, a professor at St John's University law school.

Former Republican Gov. George Pataki unsuccessfully pushed to legalize ballot initiatives. The GOP-led State Senate in 2011 approved such a measure, but the bill died in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, said Gerald Benjamin, a political-science professor at SUNY New Paltz."There's no prospect of it passing at any venue other than a constitutional convention; it's a very long shot," Benjamin said.

Research by Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., shows that states with the initiative process have fewer federal-level corruption cases. "The findings indicate that as the number of initiatives passed within a state increases, U.S. District Court-level political corruption decreases," he wrote.

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia University's Law School, said, "The things that are most likely to pass through initiative and into law are term limits and redistricting reform. Those laws would never make it up for a vote in the legislature, but the initiative process is a promising avenue to institute them."

Ballot initiatives in other states

Massachusetts: Any initiative backed by enough voters automatically becomes a bill before the state Legislature. Lawmakers can reject it, or modify and approve it. If initiative sponsors are dissatisfied with the legislative result, they can seek to gather enough petition signatures to put the proposal on the general election ballot. Key initiatives have included legalization of medical marijuana, which passed in November, a 5 percent reduction in the state personal income tax and a ban on professional dog racing.

California: Voters who collect enough petition signatures can put an initiative on the ballot. The initiative cannot be changed once petitions begin circulating. If the measure passes it becomes law. Key initiatives have included Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax limit, and the "Three Strikes and You're Out" measure in 1994 that lengthened prison terms for individuals convicted of felonies if they previously were convicted of violent or serious felonies.

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