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The Visible Hand Drops the Ball

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

One of the great things about the Obamacare fiasco is that we get to revisit many of the left’s talking points for the last half-century and more — and hand the points right back, underlined.

How many times have we heard about market failure? A relentless litany.

Today’s topic? Government failure.

How many times have we been told that markets aren’t as important as we think, since what really matters is managerial know-how? The “visible hand” and all that. It was a book, if not a movie. And its basic message was that a few college-grad experts — highly trained technocrats, all — mattered more than competition. Government experts have the information. They have the skills. The techniques are known. Don’t give us any of that “free market” mumbo-jumbo, they say.

And yet, while the federal government’s efforts to build a usable website proved feckless, lame and wildly expensive, Obamacare’s increasingly unbelievable proponents kept the patter going. Some states were doing just fine, they offered. Maryland, for instance.

Well, no.

The Old Line State has had just as much trouble in its new line of pushing online medical insurance policies as other governments. Biggest problem? You mean, other than not being able to put up a usable website on schedule? Or getting only four people signed up on launch day?

The Washington Post informs us that state officials ignored warnings that “no one was ultimately accountable for the $170 million project and that the state lacked a plausible plan” for its scheduled launch.

The evidence is in. Want a new market “exchange”? Don’t turn to government.

Rely, instead, on folks competing in the real market.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Running the Asylum

Friday, March 15th, 2013

After an election in Idaho wherein legislators saw three of their laws rejected by citizen-initiated referendums, Senate Bill 1108 passed the senate and headed its way to the House. It would impose draconian new requirements to qualify a referendum or citizen initiative.

“There’s a perception that this relates to Props 1, 2 and 3,” explained the bill’s author, Sen. Curtis McKenzie (R-Nampa). “This doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

Voters in Maryland approved the three legislative enactments petitioned to statewide referendum votes last November. But why risk a veto from the people, eh? Legislation has been introduced to dramatically increase signature requirements, restrict pay for petition circulators, and block websites from providing online help to those wishing to sign referendum petitions.

Sadly, the federal government’s executive branch seems no fonder of citizen input than do state legislators. The White House petition website recently hiked the signature requirement up four-fold to get an official response — from 25,000 people to 100,000 folks.

“Raising the threshold so steeply and so suddenly,” Rachael Larimore wrote in Slate, “sends the message that maybe the White House doesn’t really want to be bothered with the problems of the people.”

Obviously, the White Houses isn’t alone among political power centers in opposing citizen involvement. To keep track of assaults on the initiative, referendum and recall, please consult Citizens in Charge’s 2013 Legislative Tracker.

I’ll keep it updated; you keep your local “representatives” checked.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

People of the Solution

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

We suffer for our art. Yesterday, I sat through four excruciating hours of legislative hearings before the Ways and Means Committee of Maryland’s House of Delegates. I was waiting to testify on behalf of Citizens in Charge against House Bill 493.

For 20 years before last November, not a single referendum made it onto the Maryland ballot. Why? The state has the country’s most draconian rules for verifying petition signatures. An attorney running his own petition effort had his signature disallowed because he did not sign one of his two middle names or write the initial.

Most states use the standard of “substantial compliance” — if they can tell it is the signature of the registered voter, they count it, even if it doesn’t appear exactly as written on the voter registration record. Maryland’s strict compliance, on the other hand, disallows the signature of “Joe” rather than “Joseph.”

But you can’t keep good people down. A group called, led by Delegate Neil Parrott and April Parrott, his wife, found a way to provide online help in filling out the petition correctly, so that people’s signatures could count. They petitioned three separate bills to referendums last November by working both online and on the streets.

They lost all three, but in the process they brought the right to referendum back to life in Maryland.

Which brings me back to House Bill 493, against which I finally got to speak for five minutes. Among its myriad provisions to knee-cap petition efforts, most distressing is the one making it illegal to provide citizens with their voter registration information to help them fill out a referendum petition online.

Yes, the legislature is in session.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Constitutional Coup d’état?

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Last November, Marylanders went to the polls. In addition to choosing candidates to administer their government as well as delegates to legislate for them, there was a ballot question on whether to call a constitutional convention, which, if voters so chose, would provide an opportunity to propose fundamental reforms.

Well, voters so chose. A solid majority — 54.4 percent — voted Yea.

But the Maryland Legislature isn’t setting up the convention.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, J.H. Snider, president of, tells the history of the constitutional convention provision in Maryland’s 1851 Constitution: “From 1851 until 1930, the majority required to convene a con-con was interpreted and implemented to mean an ordinary majority.”

But in 1930, when a majority said yes to a convention, the legislature balked, claiming that a convention required a supermajority of all citizens voting in the election. In other words, those not voting on the convention issue were counted as Nay votes.

A legal challenge was brought, but failed, because the counsel to the General Assembly provided, according to Snider, “a remarkably selective and biased interpretation of the con-con debates” for the court. In 1950, again a simple majority called a convention, again legislators shut their ears and, this time, a federal court case failed to decide the matter.

Snider supports a convention as the “best hope for fixing Maryland’s democratic deficits, including its inherently corrupt redistricting system and its legislators’ defiance of popular sentiment on legislative term limits.”

So, he’s suing the Old Line State government “to force it to convene the con-con a majority of Marylanders voted for on Nov. 2, 2010.”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Like Zimbabwe

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Richard M. Lindstrom signed a petition, but his signature didn’t count.

The analytical chemist for the federal government left off his middle initial. He told the Washington Post, “I dropped my middle initial on my official signature, oh, I don’t know, probably 40 years ago. It’s my signature. It’s acceptable to my bank and everybody else. But not the Board of Elections.”

Welcome to Montgomery County, Maryland. The Old Line State may lack a statewide initiative, but it does have a robust initiative and referendum process at the county level of government. Unfortunately, as many as 80 percent of the signatures for two initiative petitions — one for term limits and another on ambulance fees — were recently invalidated by county officials. In 2008, the Maryland Court of Appeals declared that a person’s signature on a petition must be presented precisely as signed on his or her voter registration form or, alternatively, must include the surname from the registration and one full given name as well as the initials of all other names.

Longtime petition activist Robin Ficker led the term limits drive. But his signature didn’t count either. While he signed “Robin K. Ficker,” his full name is Robin Keith Annesley Ficker. He forgot the initial “A.”

“They are not even letting people have the chance to vote,” Ficker argued as he and others appeal the petition decision. “It’s the antithesis of a democracy. It’s what they would do in, like, Zimbabwe.”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Taking the Initiative (and Referendum)

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Maryland State Senator Joan Carter Conway dislikes a certain popular bill, so it probably won’t pass. Why not? Is she so charismatic that she can persuade most fellow lawmakers to vote down any bill she dislikes?

No. Conway chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Although most committee members support this particular bill, she can kill it just by declining to bring it up for a vote. Then it won’t matter what anybody else thinks — in the committee, the senate, or the whole state.

The bill in question would simply allow direct shipment of wine to Maryland. That’s it. Prohibition was repealed some time ago. But there are still many silly laws regulating how liquor may be distributed and sold, laws that have nothing to do with protecting the public.

Annapolis commentator Eric Hartley argues for legislative term limits, saying it would help break up Maryland’s undemocratic committee system. Yes, but voters need the right of citizen initiative even more — so they can GET the term limits, for one thing.

Maryland citizens do have referendum rights, the right to exercise the “People’s Veto.” But lawmakers have been making it very difficult lately to exercise that veto. Let’s hope the courts strike down those restrictions. And that voters find a way to pass liberty-expanding ballot measures on their own even when their representatives won’t or can’t.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Big Brother Plays in Traffic

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

One of my favorite uncles used to jokingly tell us kids to “go play in traffic.” In reality, not so good for kids. Or for politicians.

Maryland’s recent Senate Bill-277 brought this to mind. It authorizes the installation of cameras to monitor and ticket for speeding near highway work zones and schools. Legislators insist that the cameras will slow down traffic and bring in needed revenue.

How do voters feel? Well, according to a report at “no photo enforcement program has ever survived a public vote.”

Voters tend to regard speed cameras as simply another scam to grab yet more money. The cameras also remind one of Big Brother.

So, how come legislators don’t listen to the people? Maybe one reason is that as also reports, “[P]arties with a direct financial interest in automated ticketing showered members of the Maryland General Assembly and the governor with $707,725 in gifts and campaign cash.”


Fortunately, Maryland voters have the right to referendum: They can petition to place this legislation to a vote of the people.

And that is exactly what the group Maryland for Responsible Enforcement is now doing.

Similar battles are being waged in other states. There’s an effort to take away the 200 speed cameras now on Arizona roads; Montana legislators just banned such cameras in Big Sky Country.

Maybe Big Brother should “go play in traffic.”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.