Two other common mechanisms of legislative authority available to citizens of many of the other states are not currently available to Texans. These are the initiative and the referendum. They have become the subject of considerable interest group organizing in all of the states, including Texas.
Initiative is a two-part process specified in a state's constitution that allows citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments usually through signature gathering, and ultimately to adopt or reject these proposed laws during general elections. The process reflects the two main stages of regular legislation: proposal and adoption (or rejection).
Usually citizens groups consult with attorneys and other legislative and political advisors to draft a proposed law (an initiative), after which they submit it to the designated agency or office of state government responsible for review and ultimate placement on the ballot in the next general election. This responsibility typically resides either with a state's secretary of state or its attorney general, who develops a summary and a label for placement on the ballot, and who estimates the fiscal impact (on taxes and spending) of the proposed law. These same functions are carried out by the Texas Legislature when it proposes a bill each bill is given a number, a formal title, a working title, and a summary.
After this initial processing, supporters of the proposed initiative print petition sheets and circulate them for signature by registered voters. The various states allowing the initiative process require different numbers of signatures (a good thing, since the entire state of Wyoming has 150 thousand fewer inhabitants than the city of Austin). If the minimum number of signatures are collected within a specific time period, they are submitted for examination of validity, after which the secretary of state certifies the proposition and assigns a place on the ballot for the next general election. If a simple majority of voters approve, then the initiative becomes a law.
A referendum is also a proposed law placed on the ballot for citizens to either approve or reject. The key difference from an initiative is that referenda (plural of referendum) are proposed by the legislature or by local governing bodies like city councils. In 1990, for instance, the Austin city council placed a referendum on the ballot proposing municipal funding of the proposed Austin Convention Center. This drew widespread and often rancorous debate, but in the end gave Austinites a chance to participate in an important decision that would shape the character of their city.
Despite the absence of the initiative and referendum in state-level policy making, these two forms of popular legislative power are important topics in contemporary Texas politics. Ever since 1978 when California passed its famous Proposition 13 to roll back local property tax increases, successive Texas gubernatorial administrations promised to support constitutional amendments that would permit initiatives on the state level.
Indeed, much of the initial drive for the initiative and referendum in Texas (and in many other states) originates from groups for whom cutting taxes and spending is a high priority. And, the Republican Party has generally carried the banner for the initiative and referendum since the 1970s. Currently, the non-partisan group Initiative for Texas is the main organized group championing adoption of these forms of popular legislation.
It is true that much of the drive in the past two decades to spread the adoption of the initiative process to the various states has been led by conservative groups. Still, by now the battle has been joined by more liberal groups, seeking to blunt the conservative push and going on the offensive with its own initiatives. A national umbrella group, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, was founded in 1998 to "... help defeat right wing initiatives and to develop a pro-active, national initiative strategy for progressives."
In Texas the drive to adopt the initiative process seems to originate more from grassroots conservative populists in the Republican Party than from the business sector (that is, from the base, not from the leadership). Back in 1979, when Republican Governor Bill Clements threatened to call a special session of the Legislature if it did not send him a bill to institute the initiative process, his leading opponent was a Houston lobbyist James K. Nance. Nance's law firm represented such major corporate clients as Union Carbide, DuPont, Houston Power and Light, Pennzoil, and United Texas Gas Transmission.