Bet some folks are conflicted over this.
On one hand, a top government official traveling the state to meet real people to hear their thoughts on proposed public policy is refreshing.
So, in this case, a listening/fact-finding tour on whether Pennsylvania should legalize recreational marijuana, just begun by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, seems an example of at least an attempt at grassroots democracy.
On the other hand, wait, what?
Taxpayers pony up (by Fetterman’s estimate) $20,000 to $25,000 for a multi-month trek through all 67 counties with maybe 80 events (bigger counties get more than one visit) so people can cheer for pot or rant on reefer madness?
And this border-to-border jaw fest is sponsored by an administration that’s never pushed legalization or even talked about grass, except when asked, and is headed up by its number two, who reportedly wants to run for U.S. Senate in 2022?
Not to mention this comes during aggressive ongoing administration efforts to battle opioid addiction, which, depending on one’s view of “gateway” drugs, might seem a tad counterproductive.
A bit eyebrow-raising, no?
Plus, doesn’t independent polling tell us what Pennsylvanians think about grass?
Heck, back in 2017, a Franklin and Marshall College poll showed most state voters, 59 percent, agreed cannabis should be legal.
Anybody think that number dropped? Last October, a national Pew Research survey found pro-pot support at 62 percent.
So, when the swing-state swing shows we like weed, then what?
Think the odds that our conservative Republican legislature is ready to seriously consider legalization get any better than slim and none, mostly none?
Yet here we go.
Multiple public events in Central Pennsylvania this week, more in Southwestern Pennsylvania next week, and on and on, up to six or seven a week, until mid-June.
This isn’t a tour. It’s an endurance test.
Does it have any value?
Meri Long is a University of Pittsburgh political science lecturer who researches and writes about what frames public support for various public policies.
“Any time a politician wants to hear from the voters, wants to let people give their thoughts, that seems a positive thing to me,” she says.
“Town hall-type meetings do provide another avenue for democracy,” she adds, “So, ideally, it’s a good thing.”
OK, there’s that.
And even Senate GOP Leader Jake Corman of Centre County, who labels legalization “reckless and irresponsible,” has no problem with Fetterman’s road show.
“I haven’t been critical of the tour. Historically, lieutenant governors don’t have much to do. If he wants to go to 67 counties, God bless him,” says Corman.
“But listening tours don’t form public policy,” he adds, “and, to me, this is an enormous public policy decision, akin to legalizing gambling," which took years.
Still, there’s something to be said for Fetterman’s effort.
There’s the fact, as Gov. Tom Wolf notes, neighboring states are pushing for legalization and the tax revenue it would bring.
Forbes reports that in addition to 10 states where marijuana’s legal (33, including Pennsylvania, allow medical marijuana), nine more states, including New York and New Jersey, could legalize as soon as this year.
Also, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale projects legal grass, if regulated and taxed, means $580 million a year in new state revenue.
And Fetterman pushes the tour as one with no agenda other than “to see where Pennsylvania is” on the issue, to generate thought and conversation, to get more than random yes/no answers from a poll.
He says when it comes to politics and policy, interaction often is reduced to social media “burns” or Facebook “likes,” adding, “I think we should have a 67-county conversation about every major policy.”
Finally, Fetterman favors legalization (doesn’t use, tried it 20 years ago, says, “It’s just not for me”) but is open-minded. He wants the tour to “make people feel respected and free to voice their opinion, whatever it might be.”
“I’m not going to debate people. We’re going to demand civility, no booing. And at the end of each session, we’ll have a show of hands, for and against.”
He adds, “If all this falls short, it falls short. But it won’t be for lack of effort.”
As for me, I think too few elected officials connect with the public. I think such connection (on any issue) is vital to public service. I think anything that helps people feel they’re part of the government they pay for can lead to better government.
Plus, Fetterman’s calling and inviting lawmakers of both parties to events in their area. I hope they attend. Maybe they can meet some constituents.