Monday, January 17, 2022

‘Trust The People’- Amend The State Constitution To Authorize Citizens To Establish New Laws Without The General Assembly

There are lots of proposals to amend the state constitution moving in the Senate and House, but the most important proposal has not seen any action this session--
Senate Bill 538 that would recognize the power inherent in the people by authorizing voters to directly propose and vote on amendments to the state constitution, establish new laws or repeal existing laws, without action by the General Assembly.

“Initiatives can be used to make the will of the people law on issues that elected officials are unwilling to address,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh), prime sponsor of the bill.   “I believe that giving more power to the people to impact changes or needs is a good thing—and long overdue.”

The ballot initiative process would propose a new law or constitutional amendments by petitions signed by five percent of the registered voters casting votes for Governor in not less than 45 counties.  Petitions to repeal a law are similar, but more stringent.

There were a total of 5,012,555 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race.  Five percent of those votes would be 250,628, a high bar, but doable.

Some examples of issues citizens could directly take action on without the General Assembly--

-- New Poll Shows 90% Of PA Voters Want Senate, House Members To Address Environmental, Conservation Priorities, Provide More Funding For Critical Programs

-- F&M Poll Finds 67% Say Climate Change Causing Problems Now, 68% Support Doing More To Address Climate Change

-- New Poll Shows 80% Bipartisan Support Across Pennsylvania For Passage Of Community Solar Bill

-- New Poll: 65% Of PA Voters Want To Help Communities Affected By Transition To Clean Energy

-- New Poll Finds 7 In 10 PA Voters Favor Participating In Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative To Reduce Power Plant Carbon Pollution

-- New Poll Finds 72% Of PA Voters Want Government To Prioritize Clean Energy In Economic Stimulus

These and many more issues have not been addressed by the current people that run the General Assembly, but could be through citizen initiative.

Click Here for more environment and energy legislation that isn’t being moved.

The ballot initiative bill is especially timely now, given all the attempts by Senate and House Republicans to amend the constitution as a way to get around or limit the authority of their co-equal branches of government-- the Governor and the Courts.

If Republicans truly believe their rhetoric-- “People deserve to have their voices heard” [Senate Republican Leader Kim Ward]-- then this is the ultimate megaphone.

The bill was referred to the Senate State Government Committee for action.

Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) serves as Majority Chair of the Senate State Government Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-787-2637 or send email to dargall@pasen.govSen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-787-6735 or send email to:

Originally A Republican Initiative

The late Sen. Jim Rhoades (R-Schuylkill) pushed a proposal for 20 years to amend the state’s constitution to allow citizens to exercise a power they already have to directly enact new laws or repeal laws through citizen-led initiatives and referendums without the Senate and House.  Read more here.

His last bill-- Senate Bill 137-- was given a hearing by the Senate State Government Committee in May of 2007, but never saw action before his tragic death in 2008.  Read more here.

Groups as different as the conservative Commonwealth Foundation and Common Cause supported the legislation.

Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation said in testimony at that 2007 hearing--

Senate Bill 137 would “... 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.” 

Barry Kauffman of Common Cause said at the hearing-- "Our organization has been a strong advocate of initiative and referendum for nearly two decades. Citizens recognize these tools for what they are, essential legislative safety valves necessary to ensure an effectively functioning representative democracy.''  Read more here.

“Initiative,” is a process to let citizens exercise the power they already have to make laws by collecting a certain amount of signatures from register voters, based on the number of votes cast in the last election for governor to put a proposed law or constitutional change on the election ballot without waiting for the General Assembly to act.

“Referendum,” would establish a similar process to overturn laws or constitutional amendments passed by the General Assembly.

As news coverage at the time said, “Some lawmakers fear the initiative bill will flout the power, which they alone now have, to enact new laws.  Others don’t want to give citizens the ability to overturn laws the Legislature enacts.  Others fear it will cause citizens groups to gain too much influence.”  Read more here.

G. Terry Madonna, the political commentator at Franklin & Marshall College, said the General Assembly historically has shown no interest in giving more power to voters to make law.  Read more here.

After all, it would disrupt the fundamental political - legislative process that allows House and Senate members to collect unlimited campaign contributions from stakeholders that are for and against particular legislation-- and frequently both.

Today, 26 states and the District of Columbia have some form of ballot initiative process, and of that number 21 states provide for direct statutory initiatives, according to Sen. Boscola.

[Posted: January 17, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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