Parrott making another petition push

January 08, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

For a quick primer on how government-by-petition works out, look to the west. California adopted a form of direct democracy in 1911 and the truly incredible thing is that for the next 67 years, the people used a remarkable degree of restraint.

The year that the Titanic sank, California voters sensibly rejected a ban on bookies. Two years later, they used the initiative to abolish the poll tax and fund Cal university.

And had the California state government properly conducted its affairs, it can be argued, no one would have ever heard of Howard Jarvis and, as the ’70s drew to a close, there would have been no need for Proposition 13.

California, as the Clampett family testified, was the place you ought to be in the flower-power era, and growing populations forced up home values, and with higher home values came higher property taxes.

Taxes got so high that even (some) liberals got fed up, and voters went to the polls and cut property tax by 57 percent, while limiting tax growth to 2 percent a year. The initiative passed with 65 percent of the vote.

But he who taketh away can also giveth, and voters have seen no contradiction in mandating, by ballot initiative, more state spending for schools and such. Now, in part because its revenues are capped, California is a mess. Direct-democracy advocates will — more or less accurately — point out that, in theory, the state’s elected lawmakers could have averted the crisis. But in reality they could not, because the strong public employee unions would have booted them from office had they toyed with salaries or pensions.

And as if these lawmakers needed proof, when the state’s Republican governor went directly to the people with a ballot initiative of his own that would have eased the problems (at some pain to residents), he was soundly rejected.

That’s the problem with direct democracy: Citizens will always vote to pay less tax, while they are voting to receive more benefits.

Undaunted by history, as tea party adherents seldom are, Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington, is now trying to bring a taste of California to Maryland, by opening the state budget to the whim of the electorate. Currently, only nonbudget issues can be placed on the ballot through a petition drive.

Parrott, whose mischievous, anti-establishment streak does have its appeal in light of the traditional Annapolis political gauntlet, blindsided state leaders last year with a ballot initiative to pre-empt a pending law that would allow the children of illegal immigrants in Maryland to pay in-state college tuition.

The overwhelming success of this petition has caused Dream Act supporters to insist that it is a budget issue, and therefore is constitutionally off limits for a public vote. (The irony is that supporters of the Dream Act, by and large, defended it by saying the law would have little cost, while opponents charged that it would come with a heavy price tag. Events and the Maryland constitution have now forced both sides to switch positions in the name of political expediency.)

Parrott’s bill won’t go anywhere, obviously. He’s so blacklisted in Annapolis at the moment, he couldn’t even get a bill passed granting clemency to kittens. But still. It’s important to remember that the U.S. Constitution guards against direct democracy just as emphatically as it guards against a monarchy. (For all this “we the people” boilerplate that is so common today, the founders did not even trust we the people to vote for our senators; that didn’t change until the 17th Amendment allowed for it in 1913.)

Basically, the founders did not want us to vote directly for our own interests, because our own interests will invariably conflict with the interests of others. Elected representatives are the necessary insulation between hot heads and temperate decisions.

But while he’s on the subject, Parrott has one other petition enhancement in mind, one that would allow people to sign petitions anonymously, on the theory that petitions share commonality with a secret ballot.

But the two actually couldn’t be more different. When an individual signs a petition, he is effectively acting as a miniature lawmaker. He is not voting for a living, breathing candidate who is capable of coercion or revenge. He is voting on a law that will affect the lives of all Marylanders. And we have an absolute right to know who is making our law — not to mention that those whose rights are abridged by a piece of legislation have an absolute right to, in effect, face their accusers.

This isn’t to suggest that Parrott’s petition fetish is a waste of time or, worse, some form of political subversion. In a state where one party held all the power yesterday, holds all the power today and will hold all the power tomorrow, one must be creative, lest the majority trample the minority without fear of reprisal. But neither should the majority of the state be wagged by a mechanism that was never envisioned as a central part of our government.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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