Empowering Citizens through Legislative Redistricting & Initiative & Referendum

Thank you Chairman Piccola and members of the Senate State Government Committee for the opportunity to share with you the position and opinions of the Commonwealth Foundation on Senate Bills 346 and 137.

As the General Assembly seeks to increase openness, transparency and accountability in state government, the Commonwealth Foundation believes that the proposals to empower the people of Pennsylvania with the ability to initiate and repeal legislative and constitutional changes, as well as reform the process by which legislative districts are drawn in Pennsylvania, will dramatically improve two systemic deficiencies in our state constitution. With regard to redistricting, Senate Bill 346 would once again empower voters to choose their politicians, rather than politicians choosing their voters through the gerrymandering process. The current approach to drawing district boundaries is purely political and personal in nature, and primarily serves to protect incumbents from challengers and to entrench partisan control of legislative districts.

We believe that Senate Bill 346 to be amongst the most important reform measures for making elections more competitive and districts more representative of constituents in Pennsylvania. We commend Senator Boscola for taking the lead on this legislation. As for a technical critique of Senate Bill 346, I will leave that to my more able colleagues at Common Cause and the League of Women Voters—two groups we have been working with for the past couple of years in pursuit of good government in Pennsylvania.

Therefore, I would like to spend the rest of my testimony on Senate Bill 137. This amendment would empower citizens with the ability to initiate legislation and/or constitutional amendments, as well as repeal laws the public deems unnecessary or unsuitable.

It is important to note that Senate Bill 137 would also help give life to the currently inanimate provision in Article I, Section 2 of our state constitution which declares “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”

Currently, the people of Pennsylvania cannot exercise this “inalienable and indefeasible right” because there is no enabling language in either statute or the constitution to “alter, reform or abolish their government.” Senate Bill 137 rectifies this deficiency and would for the first time animate this critical provision of our state constitution. In general, we commend Senator Rhoades for crafting a very fine bill.

However, the Commonwealth Foundation would like to offer a number of suggestions that we believe will dramatically improve this constitutional amendment. Fortunately, Pennsylvania would not be venturing into uncharted waters with regard to citizen initiative and popular referendum. Today, citizens in 24 states enjoy this power. We the benefit of learning from their experiences and, in the process, craft the strongest Initiative and Referendum (I & R) provision in the country. I would first like to address a common concern expressed by opponents of I & R. Some will suggest that allowing citizens to initiate and repeal laws and constitutional amendments is a devolution of our representative form of government into a democracy.

While I also have concerns about majority-rule democracy and the potential for abuse in a poorly crafted I & R amendment, such provisions can and should be viewed and utilized as an important check and balance by citizens on their government. I & R need not become a destructive force. Indeed, it can and should be a very constructive tool in our constitutional republic.

To this end, the Commonwealth Foundation proposes the following six changes to Senate Bill 137 to strengthen this important constitutional amendment.

First, in addition to the “direct initiative” approach contained in this bill, we would encourage the incorporation of the “indirect initiative” option as well (with lower signature thresholds, which I will explain next). By incentivizing the path of the initiative process through the legislature, a proposal can benefit from the General Assembly’s analysis, hearings, and debates. However, if the legislature refuses or fails to adequately address the issue in the initiative (according to the petitioner), then the petitioner should be able to circumvent the legislature and place the issue directly before the people at the ballot box (the “direct initiative” approach). We do not support, however, the “indirect initiative” approach to the exclusion of the “direct initiative” method.

Citizens in states that lack “direct initiative” have no further recourse if their statutory or constitutional proposal is stymied in the legislative process. This leads to our second suggestion. Senate Bill 137 establishes unreasonably high signature thresholds for ballot access (lines 6 and 7, page 2). As Senate Bill 137 is currently written, a citizen initiative for a statute would require the gathering of more than 327,412 signatures from registered electors in Pennsylvania (which is 8% of the votes for all the candidates for Governor at the last gubernatorial election—4,092,652 votes for Mr. Rendell and Mr. Swann in November 2006). A citizen initiative for a constitutional amendment would require more than 409,265 signatures. We believe this threshold is too high and recommend a reasonable standard of 5% and 7% for statutory and constitutional initiatives, respectively (204,633 and 286,486 signatures). Signature requirements for an “indirect initiative” approach should be lower (say, 3% and 5%) in order to incentivize that route to changing the constitution or enacting laws.

Third, we are concerned about the exclusion of measures that relate to “religion, religious practices or religious institutions” (lines 23 and 24, page 2). While this provision may be intended to protect religion from encroachment by the state, the Declaration of Rights in Article I already protects religious liberties in Pennsylvania. In addition, this verbiage is so vague that it could serve to disqualify many initiative measures simply because most public policy impacts religiously-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, schools, and other organizations. These entities play such an important and integral role in serving the common good throughout Pennsylvania, we would not want to exclude them or severely limit the initiative process through this provision. Therefore, we strongly recommend the removal of this language entirely in order to prevent any confusion or ambiguity.

Our fourth recommendation is the inclusion of a prohibition against initiative measures that obligate the General Assembly to specific appropriation levels in the future. States which permit such binding measures on their legislatures have experienced severely negative fiscal and economic effects. Additionally, the appropriations process is rightfully placed in the hands of the legislative branch (along with the approval of the executive branch). This provision would also serve to protect our representative form of government. Therefore, we recommend the incorporation of the following language into Senate Bill 137: “No initiative measure may compel or obligate current or future appropriations of the General Assembly.”

The fifth recommendation is the removal of language that forces the General Assembly to craft new campaign finance limits on the initiative and referendum process. We believe that I & R finance laws should mirror current laws which prohibit corporate and union contributions; and we do not support a two-tiered campaign finance system that this provision would establish.

Sixth, and finally, we recommend the removal of limits on the number of measures that can appear on a ballot, as well as the qualification provisions. We believe that the signature threshold is high enough to prevent “ballot clutter,” and consider the limitation and qualification standards as giving an unfair advantage to wealthy special interests at the expense of common citizens.

I’d like to thank you again Sen. Piccola for your leadership in pursuing legislation and constitutional amendments that will begin restoring a state government in Pennsylvania that is more open, transparent, and accountable. We believe that both Senate Bills 346 and 137, with our recommended changes, will certainly move us in that direction. I am happy to answer any questions.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, delivered this testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee on Wednesday, May 23, 2007.