Are Texas Republicans scared of a little direct democracy?

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Session after session, Texas Republicans have confidently shot down bills they have deemed unworthy of being called Texan or Texas law. 

“Wrong for Texas” — one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s favorite phrases to deploy when something generally good is being discussed — rarely gets put to the test before voters. 

Lawmakers this session have already filed hundreds of proposals for constitutional amendments that would let voters directly decide some of the most important issues in Texas. 

Under Texas law, any changes to the state constitution must be put to people first, essentially making any and all constitutional amendments in Texas statewide ballot initiatives.

Many of these proposals range from harmless (ending daylight savings) to crazy (seceding from the U.S.). But there’s plenty that Texas voters would be genuinely interested in hashing out for themselves. 

There’s Rep. Joe Deshotel’s constitutional amendment to legalize casino gaming in certain areas. 

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini has filed one to establish a Texas Redistricting Commission and another that would allow people under the age of 18 to vote in primaries as long as they will be of age by the general election. Zaffirini has also joined Rep. John Bucy and several other lawmakers in filing a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, a top priority for Democrats this session.

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, Rep. Terry Canales, and others have filed constitutional proposals to legalize marijuana. 

State Sen. Nathan Johnson and Rep. Rafael Anchia have filed a constitutional amendment to require the lieutenant governor and speaker to call a special session if at least two-thirds of the legislature votes to call one.

To get any of these proposals on the ballot, two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber must agree in a vote. 

Throughout Texas history, 690 constitutional amendments have come before voters. Of those, 507 have been adopted, or 73 percent. 

It’s not hard to imagine why Republicans have repeatedly declined the opportunity to let Texas voters decide issues that most of the general public supports, like raising the minimum wage or legalizing pot.

Unfortunately, Texas is among half the states in the nation that do not allow petition-based citizen initiatives, meaning Texans cannot bypass lawmakers when it comes to introducing statewide ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments. 

States that allow for a citizen-led initiative process have seen voters enact popular policies that may run counter to the priorities of whichever party controls the state legislature. 

Take Florida, a state that went for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections and which has seen Republicans in charge of the state legislature since the 1990s. In 2019, progressive groups gathered enough petition signatures to propose a constitutional amendment to incrementally increase Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. The wage initiative was put before voters on Nov. 3, 2020, and approved by a 20-point margin. 

The same story happened in Arkansas, where Republicans have controlled the state legislature since 2012. In 2018,  Arkansas voters raised the minimum wage to $11 by 2021 thanks to the same citizen-led initiative that was backed by 68 percent of voters.

A similar proposal would enjoy overwhelming margins in Texas too, where 62 percent of voters favor increasing the federal minimum wage, according to a 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. 

Following in the steps of Arizona, Mississippi, and Montana, Floridians are now also expecting to see another petition-led constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2022 to legalize marijuana. An initiative to expand Medicaid will also be decided on the ballot the same year.

Texans Republicans are probably keenly aware of polling in the state that show two-thirds of Texans support Medicaid expansion, so it’s unlikely they will give Texans a chance to speak for themselves on the issue with a little direct democracy.

But it would be a beautiful thing to see — no backroom deals, no political concessions — just Texans voting to improve their lives with popular policies and against the wishes of helpless Republican lawmakers. 

Photo: Niyazz/Getty Images

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