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History of direct democracy in Louisiana
In the mid-1970s backers of a rent control initiative collected the required 10,000 signatures to put it on the New Orleans ballot, only to be barred by a ruling of the state supreme court that initiative charter amendments must be related to matters in the existing city charter. In April 1981 voters passed an initiative to restrict the city council's power to enact flat-rate taxes on real property and motor vehicles.
The biggest New Orleans initiative battle in recent years, however, was over the city council's power to regulate electric utility rates. The council had this power until 1982, when voters approved the transfer of the authority to the state public service commission. Little more than a year later, a utility company, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), asked for a huge rate increase to finance the construction of the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant.
Mayor Ernest Morial and Council Members Joseph Giarusso and James Singleton sponsored an initiative in 1983 to return the power to regulate utility rates to the city council. Utility company executives and stockholders raised $800,000 for a campaign to defeat it, an unprecedented amount for a New Orleans election campaign. Backers spent only $35,000 and were narrowly defeated on November 8, 1983: the vote was 78,746 (49.8 percent) in favor and 79,434 against.
The sponsors came back with another initiative a year and a half later. This time the utilities spent $2 million on their "Vote No" advertising blitz, but it did not sway the voters. On May 4, 1985, New Orleans voted by a two to one margin to return control of utility rates to the city.
In 1999, Governor Mike Foster, working with the Initiative & Referendum Institute, supported efforts to add the initiative and referendum process to the state constitution. Though his commitment was strong, the state legislature rebuffed his efforts.
- This state history is based on David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution and is reproduced here with the permission of the Initiative & Referendum Institute.