A Call For Reform

HARRISBURG, PA — The Commonwealth Foundation joined Sen. Jeff Piccola, Rep. Eugene DePasquale, and several other lawmakers and reform groups in calling for a Special Session to address important legislative and government integrity reforms.

The recent “Bonusgate” indictments revealed only the latest abuse of power by elected officials and government employees. Sen. Vince Fumo will go on trial in September facing charges that he defrauded the state Senate, a museum, and a nonprofit. Former Rep. Jeff Habay will soon begin serving his prison sentence for using state workers to do campaign work and lying about an alleged anthrax mailing from a political opponent. And the 2005 pay raise—since repealed and ruled unconstitutional—ignited a popular revolt, throwing out a number of lawmakers. Yet none of these past abuses, crimes, and punishments has led to substantive legislative or constitutional reform in Harrisburg.

“The pursuit of solutions to our state’s most pressing policy problems has become secondary to the pursuit of personal gain and self-preservation by a select few with the complicity of too many,” said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation. “The ideal of public service has been replaced with a culture of self-service.”

“Legislation that would impose term limits on legislators, reform the redistricting process, eliminate the sine die session, ban the use of political bonuses, and so forth have all been stymied,” said Brouillette. “Good reform ideas are typically being killed by committee chairs and legislative leaders before rank-and-file members are permitted to debate and vote on them.”

“A special session on government reform is needed to move this process forward and force lawmakers to deal with the most critical reforms,” Brouillette added, “We praise the efforts of Sen. Piccola, Rep. DePasquale, and other legislators joining in the call for a Special Session on Public Integrity, and hope more of their colleagues will join them.”

Gov. Ed Rendell has stated he will not call a Special Session until his policy agenda is passed by the General Assembly. But Brouillette said, “We must restore the integrity of our state government before we can have a fair discussion on the important policy issues of our day. Gov. Rendell’s attempt to exploit corruption in government to further his proposals does a disservice to all Pennsylvanians. Good government should never be sacrificed for a political agenda.”

Among the reforms the Commonwealth Foundation would like to see addressed in a Special Session are:

Term Limits – Pennsylvania currently limits the number of terms the governor can serve. Similar limits should be placed on members of the General Assembly, such as currently exists in 15 other states.

Session Limits – Pennsylvania is one of only four “full-time” state legislatures with an unlimited number of session days. Limiting the number of session days, coupled with limited terms, will return Pennsylvania to a citizen-led legislature. Texas, for example, has nearly double the population of Pennsylvania yet its legislature meets for only a limited period every other year.

Redistricting – Instead of voters choosing their politicians, the current redistricting process allows politicians to pick their voters. This has contributed to unprecedented levels of uncompetitive elections, which serve to protect incumbents and entrench partisan control of legislative districts. This process should be stripped of its purely political and personal nature.

Initiative, Referendum and Recall – Twenty-four states have the initiative process whereby citizens can enact laws and/or constitutional amendments, as well as reject laws or amendments of the legislature and recall elected officials. This is not a devolution of our representative democracy, as some might argue, but an important check and balance of the people on their elected representatives.

Compensation – The ideals of “public service” should be restored through a reassessment of the compensation and benefits provided to public servants through an independent means. Many models exist in other legislative bodies that could be adapted for our purposes.

Limited Constitutional Convention – Perhaps the most important proposal that can be addressed with a special session is calling a constitutional convention limited to addressing structural changes to our governmental processes.

Brouillette said, “Given the lack of reform in the three years since the pay raise, it appears that the restoration of integrity in state government will come about only if citizens lead the way. While we continue to hope that Harrisburg will reform itself, we don’t believe Pennsylvanians should have to wait any longer for good, open, transparent, and accountable government.”

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The Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org) is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.

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