A Mandate for Reform

Much has been written about the “message” of the May 16 primary election in the weeks since Pennsylvania’s voters thunderously registered their displeasure with “business as usual” in Harrisburg. By removing 17 incumbents, citizens repudiated more lawmakers in one day than they did in the eight previous primary elections combined.

To be sure, the catalyst was the July 7, 2005 pay raise; however, the cash grab was merely a symptom of three much deeper, longstanding problems in the Capitol and Pennsylvania as a whole.

The first—and most important—factor that led to the pay raise was an ignorance of state-level policy issues among the state’s electorate. The busyness and struggles of life, family, and work occupy the vast majority of most Pennsylvanians’ waking hours, leaving little time to keep up with what goes on in Harrisburg. The pay raise, however, spurred many citizens to become enlightened and engaged as no other issue could.

The second factor was directly attributable to the first. While citizens were not paying attention, power over the Pennsylvania General Assembly—one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislative bodies in the nation—was consolidated into the hands of a politically powerful and wealthy elite, consisting of a few skilled politicians and their aides.

The third factor was the problem of the Harrisburg Bubble—the world in which many (but not all) state lawmakers live. The combination of the two preceding factors, as well as the lack of local media attention to state issues, led many rank-and-file members to believe their leaders’ assurances that they would be spared from the voters’ wrath. They expected to take some heat—but they never thought they would start a brushfire of reform that would quickly move across the entire state.

In sum, the July 7, 2005 pay raise convinced many Pennsylvanians that a number of their elected representatives had become more interested in serving themselves than in serving the public. In race after race, individuals and groups from all points along the ideological spectrum supported candidates who not only opposed the pay raise, but pledged to rein in the unaffordable pensions, extravagant perks, and other privileges.

What is interesting is that most of the May 16 political damage was done by Republican voters—who ousted three times as many incumbents as did Democrats. The difference was that Republican voter anger went beyond the politics of the pay raise and into the policy positions of incumbents.

In particular, the crushing losses suffered by Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbill were a response to their complicity in helping advance Gov. Ed Rendell’s reckless and disastrous agenda of raising taxes, increasing spending, putting future generations deeper into debt, inducing larger numbers of Pennsylvanians to become dependent on taxpayer-funded assistance, and increasing the regulatory burden faced by the state’s job creators.

A number of victorious challengers—including the two candidates responsible for retiring Senators Jubelirer and Brightbill—pledged to work for tried and tested conservative policy reforms such as limiting the growth of state spending, requiring a “supermajority” vote for tax increases, curbing lawsuit abuse, and ending compulsory unionism in Pennsylvania.

As a result, the General Assembly that convenes in January 2007 will not only have 50 to 60 new members, but it will contain many elected officials who renounced the lifestyle of taxpayer-paid luxuries and have vowed to make broad changes in the structure, operations, and policy agenda of the Legislature. Pennsylvanians, however, should not have to “wait until next year.” The voters’ mandate for reform is clear: End business as usual, and end it immediately.

Pennsylvania lawmakers must improve legislative transparency and accountability by enacting lobbying reform and other “open government” measures that ensure citizen involvement in the legislative process. Without these measures, there can be no honest, public debate on the policy questions critical to our state’s future.

At the same time, we should place limits on the number of session days in a year, return the General Assembly to part-time status, limit the number of terms lawmakers may serve, and bring legislative salaries and benefits into line with those of their constituents—whose tax dollars fund them.

Over the coming weeks and months, Pennsylvania lawmakers can demonstrate that they heard and understood the message of May 16. If they fail to do so, another day of reckoning may be awaiting many surviving incumbents in November.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg.