From Hopeless to Hopeful

On November 16, the legislators handed Gov. Rendell a bill to repeal the General Assembly’s July 7 pay and pension grab. The Governor promptly signed the measure without fanfare.

Only the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 could compare with the relentless press coverage, fueled by organized citizen groups and regional talk show hosts that not only produced the repeal of the pay raise, but energized the voters to dump Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, and nearly deposed of Justice Sandra Newman as well.

So, we’ve proven that the system still works. We Americans find the best in ourselves when faced with a common enemy and while advancing our freedom by acting toward a common goal. Today in Pennsylvania, our common enemy is the legislative process, and our common goal should be the re-creation of a citizen legislature.

If the pay raise repeal saga reveals anything, it is that the citizens of Pennsylvania are finished with rewarding the failure of public officials at the expense of taxpayers, and that we are finally willing to address a status quo that has gone unchecked for too long. The distance between the rulers and the ruled has gradually widened over the years, and we’re acting now to stop it.

Our concerns are not limited to state lawmakers. I’ve been privileged to receive feedback from irritated taxpayers. They see that government, not private enterprise, has become the epicenter of personal income growth and retirement security. Public service has become the new protected class, while the majority of citizens in the private sector struggle to make ends meet or to create new jobs.

The time has come to focus on reducing government overhead, and the pay raise repeal of ’05 should be the first of many steps toward that goal. Right now, to achieve our goal of a citizen legislature, the critical shift that must occur is in converting public outrage over the pay raise into effective political energy. We must recognize which incumbent lawmakers want real reform and who among them are protecting the existing system.

This is not a complicated process. The cadre of House members who initiated HB1945, the bill that repealed the pay raise, and the dozen members in the Senate who pushed for repeal have made a great start toward reforming the legislature and overall state government. But it is only a beginning.

Voting to repeal the pay raise has nothing to do with credibility. Everybody knows the power of the people’s voice could not be silenced, and legislators responded because they did not want to meet the same fate as Justice Nigro.

Their first move toward increased credibility might be recognizing that the $135 million “incumbency protection slush fund” must go. And surely, there will be a variety of proposals advanced by citizens’ action groups and editorial writers across the Commonwealth on how to realign the legislative process and its practices.

But the most direct route to credibility would be for our lawmakers to approve legislation for a Constitutional Convention. House Bill 1995, currently with 35 co-sponsors, is one of several options to consider. Electing citizen delegates to serve in the convention would energize our electorate and address all the concerns that have surfaced over the past four months.

We can be thankful for many things this Thanksgiving season. In a strange way, we might consider thanking those lawmakers who voted “yes” for the pay raise, because they may have given us a gift that may, in the end, give us back our government.

This gift of “hope” for those who thought Harrisburg was “hopeless” may not have a occurred if not for July 7. Of course, most Pennsylvanians never would have thought they could have repealed the pay raise, let alone remove a Supreme Court Justice.

But the hopelessness and cynicism we’ve felt over the last couple of months have been the result of a lack of ownership and sense of ability on our part. Now, we know that through the combined efforts of responsible citizens and service-oriented elected officials who are willing to challenge the status quo, we the people of Pennsylvania will surely bring about long overdue changes in our state Capitol.

This is a great time and a grand opportunity for citizens to regain ownership of their state government. The taxpayers are connecting the dots, the media is focused on government reforms, and people are demanding change as well.

So give thanks this next Thursday for what we the people did and how we did it. But also resolve yourself to make the pay raise repeal the beginning, not the end, of the changes that need to occur in Harrisburg. Only then will we truly be able to go from hopeless to hopeful.

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John Kennedy, a businessman and former Cumberland County state representative from 1980-88, is the Director of the State Government Reform Project at the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy think tank located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.