I&R: Our Inalienable Right to Reform

Following indictments and convictions of lawmakers and staff, a recent grand jury report recommended a series of legislative reforms.   In response, Sen. Dominic Pileggi told the Tribune-Review that most legislatures operate like Pennsylvania’s, a fact refuted in the same story.  Sen. Daylin Leach called the proposals “ill-conceived” and wrote “a part-time Legislature is a terrible idea,” which begs for explanation as to how 41 states manage it.  And spokesmen for both House Democrats and Republicans cited new chamber rules – which were suspended to pass the state budget – as rationale that calls for reform are unmerited.

It is clear our government will not reform itself.  Article I, Section 2 of the Pennsylvania Constitution recognizes the right of the citizens to “alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”  It is past time to exercise this right, but the General Assembly and Governor have not provided the means to do so.

Pennsylvanians need the power of initiative and referendum (I&R).  It is the only reliable mechanism for implementing reforms such as a part-time legislature, term limits, state spending caps, and abolishing gerrymandering.

I&R breathes life into Article 1, Section 2 by allowing the citizens – via majority vote at the ballot box – to enact laws and repeal bad ones. This process was an integral component of representative democracy at its founding in ancient Athens and Greece.  It also formed an important part of civic life in Colonial America.  Since our country’s genesis, 24 states have adopted I&R.  Pennsylvanians, however, only have I&R at the local level through what is known as a “home rule charter.”

The structure of statewide I&R is simple.  Initiative comes in two forms – direct and indirect. Direct initiative allows citizens to petition to place a measure on the ballot, for voters to approve or reject by majority vote.  Indirect initiative allows the same petition process to compel the legislature to vote on a specified measure.

A referendum allows the electorate to reject or affirm laws passed by the legislature. There are four types of referenda: popular, legislative, compulsory and advisory. Popular referenda allow the citizens of a state to reject legislation passed by the legislature before it takes effect. Legislative referenda allow legislators to submit proposed laws to the public for a popular vote. Compulsory referenda bind the legislature to obtain voter approval before a proposal is enacted. Finally, advisory referenda are non-binding votes to gauge public opinion.

I&R has its critics. Some question whether the people are capable of gathering the signatures and expending the resources needed to get an issue on the ballot.  Others contend the public is ill-informed to make rational judgments on civic affairs.  But given the success other states and communities in Pennsylvania have had in using I&R, the benefits are too great to ignore.

Citizens in Charge, a Washington, D.C.-based I&R advocacy group, recently released a study comparing the fiscal climate in states with I&R compared to those without the process. The study found that, on average, states with I&R have lower taxes.   In addition to lower per-capita taxes, initiative states were significantly more likely to have tax-and-expenditure limits, which generally limit state spending growth to inflation plus population growth (or a similar index). The study also found that spending limits enacted through the citizenry were more likely to remain permanent.

When one considers the fiscal and political climate of Pennsylvania, our inherent right of self-governance, and the many success stories with initiative and referendum, it becomes apparent that reform in Pennsylvania will have to start with the people exercising their constitutional sovereignty. Initiative and referendum is the only process capable of penetrating fortified special interests and giving this state the reforms our citizens deserve.

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Michael J. Nerozzi served as a research associate, and Nathan A. Benefield is the Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.