Pa.'s 'democratic deficit'

Gov. Wolf speaks to members of the media at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

DEMOCRATIC Gov. Tom Wolf tells me that Pennsylvania has a "democratic deficit."

Huh?

It's a political-science term; he has a doctorate in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the event you don't know, a "democratic deficit" exists when government policy doesn't match the will of the majority.

The term is most often applied to European governments.

Wolf says it applies to Pennsylvania because Republicans aren't doing what people want.

He's partly correct right now and historically correct, period. More on that later.

But wait. A new on-time state budget, a liquor-privatization bill and a pension-reform bill passed by the GOP last week all seem pretty popular, no?

No new taxes. Open booze sales. Put new teachers and new state workers (and lawmakers!) into 401(k)-type pensions just like the rest of world.

Largely acceptable to most voters, especially the part about no new taxes, right?

But Wolf vetoed the budget and the booze bill and remains committed to more for schools and a new tax on Marcellus Shale.

So, we have no budget, and potential disruptions for local governments, school districts and nonprofits providing a whole range of social services.

Wolf and GOP leaders are scheduled to meet today.

They met last Wednesday for what was touted as the start of serious, mutually respectful negotiations (because we get serious only after deadlines pass).

After that meeting, House GOP Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph tells me, "We're pretty far apart" (because, I guess, of the "democratic deficit").

Yet, Republicans can argue that any such deficit's due to the Democratic governor's refusal to embrace no new taxes, liquor privatization and (so far) pension reform.

Except for this: Independent polling shows that a majority of voters (59 percent in a Franklin & Marshall College Poll) favor taxing shale to put $400 million more into basic education - Wolf's top priority.

And F&M Poll director Terry Madonna notes that every poll during and since last year's election shows that education is voters' "No. 1 issue, and that's pretty historic, given it's usually jobs and the economy."

So, since the Legislature hasn't moved on shale or significant new spending for schools, Wolf's claim of (at least partial) "democratic deficit" seems on point.

Historically, he's even more on point.

This was documented in 2011 by Columbia University political scientists Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips in their study, "The Democratic Deficit in the States."

They measured state-by-state opinion surveys on dozens of issue areas, including gay rights, term limits, abortion, election reform, education, gun control, gaming and medical marijuana.

They ranked states on the percentage of government policies that mirror majority opinion.

States with the highest percentage of agreement were California (69 percent), Louisiana (69 percent) and Kansas (62).

I'd note that California and Louisiana have term limits, and that Kansas, with perhaps the nation's most conservative legislature, just passed a budget with record tax hikes.

States with the lowest percentage of agreement (all at 33 percent), or the largest "democratic deficit," were West Virginia, Wyoming and (ta-da!) Pennsylvania.

I doubt that much is changed since the study was published. It said that major influences in disconnects are partisanship and special interests. Sound familiar?

Who does partisanship and bowing to special interests better than Pennsylvania?

Just think of areas where state governance might be at odds with majority views and/or better democracy.

How about term limits? Reforms to help third-party candidates? Making registration and voting easier?

Limits on campaign finance. Reducing the size of the Legislature. Ending gerrymandering. Starting merit selection of statewide judges.

Adopting hate crimes and discrimination laws to cover the LGBT community. Reforms to end the state's worst-in-the-nation status in education-spending equity. And, yeah, liquor and pension-law reforms.

Pennsylvania has a "democratic deficit" all right. And you don't need a doctorate to see that it's hydra-headed, bipartisan and needs to be reduced.


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