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Listen to the pitch, but do your research before signing

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There’s a lot to be said for engaging the brain long before engaging the mouth. The same could be prudent before putting your John Hancock on a piece of paper.

Just as you can’t take back what you said, you also cannot rewind your signature. 

As this year’s ballot initiatives begin to pop up in front of your favorite grocery store, I hope that same bit of wisdom will be applied by voters in both the signature-gathering and voting processes.

A citizen proposed ballot issue can only appear on the 2010 general election ballot once the proposed language has fulfilled three requirements. First, the language must meet the requirements of the Montana’s Legislative Services Division. Second, the Montana Attorney General must conduct a legal review. Finally, after the review process is complete, and the sponsor has been notified by the Secretary of State of the approval or rejection of the ballot issue, the sponsor must collect signatures from qualified voters in Montana.

There are two types of initiatives — an initiative or referendum for the ballot, and a constitutional amendment by initiative. Each has separate criteria it must meet in order to appear on the ballot.

The simple initiative requires signatures from 5 percent of the total number of qualified voters in Montana, including 5 percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative house districts (a total of 24,337 signatures for the 2010 ballot).

For a constitutional amendment by initiative, signatures must be obtained from 10 percent of the total number of qualified voters in Montana, including 10 percent of the voters in each of 40 legislative house districts (a total of 48,674 signatures for the 2010 ballot).

This two-year cycle’s list of initiatives to consider starts with a proposal to hold a constitutional convention, which is allowed every 10 years. 

Others proposed initiatives include a Right to Life constitutional initiative to define a person, to a prohibition of trapping on public lands, to formally recognizing irrigation ditches as naturally-occurring waterways, to changing how hunter access programs are funded. 

There is also a proposed initiative that would prohibit new taxes on sale or transfer of real property, which is sponsored by the Montana Association of REALTORS. There’s an initiative to implement a Montana Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Drug Free Plan.

Montana law allows paid and volunteer signature-gatherers to solicit signatures in support of the initiatives. Those signatures are a crucially important step in determining whether the proposal makes it to the ballot. 

My concern is that too many people sign such initiatives without fully understanding the meaning or purpose of the proposal, nor can many people fully appreciate the impact it will have after a one or two-minute conversation with someone in front of the grocery store. 

Of course those signature-gatherers — some of whom are paid based on how many signatures they gather — are intent on getting as many signatures as possible, so their motivation is driven more toward selling the initiative’s positive points, with few counter points to consider. 

Their pitch is going to appeal to the simple common sense or decency most of us share. After all, who wouldn’t want to see less drug and alcohol abuse in our neighborhoods? Yet, what we don’t take the time to ask is how effective will the initiative be compared to alternative plans, and how much will it cost and where will the money come from?

Don’t get me wrong — each of these initiatives has the potential to positively impact our lives. But each also has a cost associated with it that must be considered, along with a considerable amount of impact that we should fully weigh. 

There are initiatives I am already leaning toward supporting, but I hope you too will feel the need to thoroughly understand each initiative and its impacts before scribbling your signature on the line. There’s nothing wrong with listening to the pitch and offering to return the next day or week to add your signature after some careful consideration.

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