News Coverage on Referendum

New York Times


Elizabeth Kolbert
Tuesday, September 8, 1987
CHATHAM, N.Y., Sept. 5— Frank Quill went from one picnic table to another at the Columbia County fair today, collecting signatures so fast that the ketchup barely had time to dry on one petition before he was starting a new one.

To many, Mr. Quill's pitch was irresistible: ''Vote for the laws you want passed.''

To fairgoers who remained absorbed in their beer mugs and sausage sandwiches, he added, ''It's time we stopped the legislators from voting themselves pay raises all the time.''

Mr. Quill, who is 50 years old, is the president of a group based in Amsterdam, N.Y., called We the People. It is trying to amend the New York State Constitution to give voters the power of initiative and referendum.

People in about half the states in the country have this power, which allows them to put on the ballot proposals to adopt or repeal laws, once they have collected enough signatures. 'There's So Many Laws'

Besides questioning the 33 percent pay rises that the state legislators voted themselves at the last session, effective January 1988, Mr. Quill and the members of We the People would like to see the public vote on a number of other issues, including a law passed recently that bans the sale of candy in public schools until after lunch hour.

''There's so many laws,'' Mr. Quill said. ''People can't take it anymore.''

We the People would also like to see a vote on the state law requiring drivers and front-seat passengers to use seat belts. Massachusetts voters repealed a similar law by referendum last year.

''We own our cars and we own our bodies, so how can they tell us what to do with them?'' said Ken Ford, trying to explain his opposition to the seat-belt law over the cries of the fair barkers. Mr. Ford, a retired builder who is leading the petition drive here in Columbia County, wore a We the People baseball cap with a picture of Uncle Sam lifting a barbell. More Than Petitions Needed

People signing the petitions Saturday offered a number of other issues they would like to see put to a vote: laws restricting smoking, zoning laws and the state budget.

Ironically, because the voters in New York State have no power of initiative, no matter how many signatures We the People collects - and so far the total is about 30,000 - petitions alone will never put any issue to a public vote.

The only way the State Constitution can be amended to give voters this power is if two successive Legislatures vote to do so and then the proposed amendment is put on the ballot. And this, according to state legislators, is not likely to happen.

G. Oliver Koppell, the chairman of the State Assembly's Judiciary Committee, said that each year about a dozen bills on initiative and referendum have been introduced in his committee, and ''they are uniformly held.'' Committee Chief Rejects Idea

Mr. Koppell said he opposed such bills because ''trying to govern by an occasional campaign for a law of repeal of a law is the wrong way to govern.''

It is too ''simplistic,'' the Bronx Democrat suggested.

Mr. Quill, a buyer for General Electric who lives near Amsterdam, said he had observed New York State politics too long to naively believe that a few thousand petitions were going to change the minds of powerful politicians like Mr. Koppell.

''Sixty, seventy thousand names, they just throw them in the waste basket,'' he said.

That is why Mr. Quill, who began the petition drive in January, does not plan to stop until he has collected a million and a half signatures.

After that is done - by the fall of next year, he hopes - he plans to bring a few thousand people to the steps of the State Capitol, just to let the legislators know he means business. Voter Pressure Threatened

And if that, too, fails, he said, ''we're just going to have to vote them out of office.''

While the pace of the petition drive has lagged a bit, Mr. Quill said, so far the response from the public has been more than encouraging. At the fair Saturday, people seemed to like the idea of voting for the laws they wanted.

''Most everything is done and the public finds out about it after the fact,'' said Michael Baron of Oceanside, L.I., as he signed Mr. Quill's petition. ''I would like to know there was something we could do about it.''

Mr. Quill doesn't expect much help from Albany.

''Certainly the Legislature hasn't been spreading the word around,'' he said. But he said he believed that once he enlisted college students, many of whom would like to see the 21-year-old drinking age law repealed, his movement would really take off.

''Wait till I get the college kids involved,'' he said. ''Let me tell you, we're going to do this thing.''

Photo of Frank Quill passing out fliers at Columbia County fair (NYT/Jim Carras)


Press Clip Relevance

This news article appeared in the New York Times back in 1987 and provides a linear perspective as to the decades of effort by certain grassroots citizen activists who have attempted -- and thus far been unsuccessful -- to get initiative and referendum enacted into law in New York State.



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