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Commentary: What’s Missing from Pennsylvania’s Ballot?

In Pennsylvania, voters are trusted to select candidates for office, but have very limited say when it comes to direct policy decisions.

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Voters cast ballots for every elected position from president of the United States down to state representatives last week. But once the election is over, we’re left to wish and hope the politicians stick to their promises and do what they can to reform the Leviathan.

If they do not, there is nothing we can do for at least two years.

That’s because there is something missing from Pennsylvania’s ballot: an initiative process (and its brother, referendum), that allows voters to directly make or reject policy by doing what the politicians cannot or will not.

At least 36 other states had some form of initiative or referendum on their ballots this Tuesday.

But in Pennsylvania, residents get very limited say over policy via the ballot box.  Here, voters are given only the chance to weigh in on constitutional amendments (along with local issues like new municipal debt).

By the time an amendment reaches that step, it has to be approved by the General Assembly — twice, in consecutive sessions — effectively turning the referendum process into nothing more than rubber stamp for policies already approved by legislators.

Residents, meanwhile, are left waiting for lawmakers to pass reforms that restrict their own power, pay and patronage. We might as well be waiting for Godot.

It’s not so in many other states.

Take the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, for example.  The so-called TABOR law adopted in Colorado in 1992 limits government spending to a formula of inflation plus population growth.  Essentially, the law predetermines the size of the pie that lawmakers have to divvy up in the annual state budget and leaves them the job of deciding only who gets what.

Would Pennsylvania lawmakers ever agree to tie their hands in such a way if it was left up to them?

People are full of surprises, I suppose, but John Caldera, president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver, once told me that there is nothing on the books in Colorado the politicians hate more than the TABOR law.

So how did TABOR became law in Colorado?  The only way it could have — it was put in place by the residents themselves, via a ballot initiative.

Interested in property tax reform?  Lawmakers in Harrisburg have tossed around the idea of changing Pennsylvania’s arcane property tax system since the 1980s, with little success.

California, on the other hand, enacted historic property tax reforms in 1978 that reduced taxes by more than 50 percent through — you guessed it — a ballot initiative.

What about privatizing the state liquor stores?  Lawmakers have been trying to end the state-run monopoly liquor system in Pennsylvania almost since the day it was implemented.  That was in 1933, at the very end of Prohibition.

Republicans say they want to take another shot at privatization in 2013, but with all the special interests that profit from the system staying just the way it is, one does not have to be a cynic to think the effort may end in failure. Again.

But in Washington State, a similar state-run liquor system was brought crashing down in 2010 when voters there approved a ballot measure to privatize all state-run liquor stores and allow alcohol to be purchased in bulk at places like Costco.

Polls consistently show more than 70 percent of Pennsylvanians would support privatizing the liquor store system — if only we were given the chance.

Like all activities in the political sphere, initiative and referendum comes with a warning label.  It requires that residents stay informed on the issues and handle their ballots responsibly.

But if government “of the people” is something to hold sacred, it’s a risk and a responsibility we should be glad to shoulder.

Eric Boehm is bureau chief for PA Independent. Contact him at eric@paindependent.

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