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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Lack of options to battle lawmakers' pay raise frustrates some

By Alison Hawkes, Herald-Standard Correspondent

HARRISBURG - If Pennsylvania were California, citizens upset about the pay raise could float a ballot initiative to scale back salaries and benefits, set term limits, or even ax the size of the Legislature.

If Pennsylvania were Colorado, or Missouri, or Maryland, or Massachusetts, the angry public could take legislation giving a 16 to 34 percent pay hike to lawmakers and put it up to a popular vote.

If Pennsylvania were Minnesota, ticked off constituents wouldn't have to wait for a regular election to throw out incumbents; they could have a recall, right then and there.

Over half the American states allow some form of direct democracy outside the normal election process, whereby citizens can seize an issue being ignored or promulgated by state lawmakers and give it their own imprimatur.

Citizen initiatives have forced lobbyist disclosure rules in Montana, banned billboards in Alaska, outlawed cockfighting in Arizona, and last year banned same-sex marriage in six states.

Pennsylvania, and a handful of mostly Eastern states take on a more conservative approach by funneling all laws through the state legislature. Voters here do have a chance to rule on referenda - such as the $625 million environmental bond which passed in May - but the decision to put a state issue to a vote is made by the Legislature and the governor.

It's a system that legal scholars say allows for continuity and stability in government, and avoids the brash and populist upheavals seen in states like California, which had 16 ballot referenda last year with 12 of them petitioned by citizens.

That state memorably tossed out a governor two years ago to replace him with movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who now faces a similar budget crisis that provoked the recall.

"It means Pennsylvania is well run and California is chaos," said Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "The reason why it's a disaster is because it's a fake form of majority control because the people don't get to vote on everything. So you cut taxes but you have [high] spending."

Still, it's times like these that leave angry Pennsylvania voters wishing they had more tools at their disposal. No one's really talking about changing the state constitution to allow more citizen participation. But some are frustrated that what is permitted - a battle in court, a battle against incumbents, and popular pressure - simply doesn't seem like enough to swiftly wrestle back control.

"Even with the Legislature itself, members are so controlled by the leadership they can barely make a dent on the agenda, let alone the citizens," said Gene Stilp, a citizen activist who is suing over the allowance for lawmakers to take their pay immediately in the form of unvouchered expenses. "If there were an initiative process in Pennsylvania to recall a piece of legislation, this legislation would be overturned immediately."

Stilp is hosting a citizen's constitutional convention in the Capitol rotunda Sept. 18 to explore options under the state constitution.

John Matsusaka, president of the Los Angeles-based Initiative and Referendum Institute and a professor of business and law at University of Southern California, said a closer form of direct democracy can work.

Legislation that works against the self-interests of lawmakers has a better chance of passing, he said. Take, for example, the fact that all but one of the states with citizen-petitioned initiatives has passed term limits on state lawmakers. But only one of the states barring citizen initiatives has passed term limits.

"We know initiative states have smaller government, spend less and tax less because of initiatives, and seem to be more responsive to public opinion," Matsusaka said. "The legislators realize they better accommodate the people; if they don't, an initiative is going to pop up and force the matter."

He said ballot initiatives have been exploding in popularity in recent years, with 62 citizen petitioned requests appearing on state ballots last November. Matsusaka attributed the increase to a better educated citizenry, with more access to information and better confidence in their own abilities to evoke change.

Pennsylvania has been unable to pass a comprehensive lobbyist disclosure rule or a Right-to-Know Act governing public documents in the Legislature.

Sen. Gerald LaValle, D-Beaver, has signed his name at least four times to bills reducing the number of members in the Legislature, a move he said would improve efficiency. That proposal is unlikely to ever succeed, LaValle admits, because what lawmaker would willingly vote himself out of a job? Still, he said he wouldn't turn to amending the state constitution in order to hand the reigns over to a public that's been long asleep at the wheel.

"I believe we have a representative form of government in Pennsylvania, and I always go back and say, the public over the years has not participated as they should in elections," LaValle said.

That's about to change, according to Russ Diamond, the leader of Operation Clean Sweep, a citizen effort to throw every incumbent out of office in next year's election. Diamond said he's not keen on handing initiative power to citizens just yet, even though incumbency protection measures, such as redistricting, means his job is harder. Diamond said the state constitution, as a document, already prescribes against the abuses seen in the pay raise.

"Our first effort should be focused on fixing what we currently have and seeing what we can do with it," he said. "If something happens that, that is not able to occur, then I would be more inclined to go with the referendum and recall options."

Diamond pointed out one never used provision in the state constitution, which has no known means of implementation but is nonetheless there as a guidepost: Article 1 Section 2.

It states: "All power is inherent in the people ... they have at all times an inalienable and indefensible right to alter, reform, or abolish their government in such a manner as they may think proper."

Alison Hawkes can be reached at 717-705-6330 or ahawkes -at- calkins-media.com

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