Delivered on Monday, March 26, 2007
Thank you Chairman Piccola and members of the Senate State Government Committee for the opportunity to share with you the position of the Commonwealth Foundation on the proposal to convene a constitutional convention in Pennsylvania.
This has been a topic of internal and external discussion for a number of years within the Commonwealth Foundation and with a number of reform-minded organizations that span the ideological spectrum.
The Commonwealth Foundation, along with Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, Rock the Capital, Operation Clean Sweep, Democracy Rising PA, and a few others have been working together for years—setting aside our policy differences, which are substantive—in order to pursue the restoration of the integrity and trust our state government has lost with its citizens. We are not all in accord with regard to a constitutional convention; however, we all agree that much more reform needs to be done 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 of a select few with the complicity of too many. While our organizations are interested in discussing and debating substantive policy issues related to our state’s economic well-being and quality of life, the people’s business has been subordinated by a culture of self-service and greed.
Our organizations coalesced around a simple goal—to make Pennsylvania state government more open, transparent, and accountable to the citizens of this Commonwealth. We agreed to check our policy differences at the door in order to pursue the common good. In the process, we’ve learned a great deal from each other, including respect for one another’s ideas because of our shared concern about our state’s future. Yet we also look forward to the day when our organizations engage in the battle of ideas in an effort to find the best solutions to our public policy problems.
I provide you this background because I hope our ability to focus on the common good by setting aside our policy differences becomes a model for your efforts to reform state government.
Since the fallout from the pay raise of July 2005, there has been a lot of talk about “reform”. While we are encouraged by much of the rhetoric coming out of our state capitol, we are concerned that it will result in mere symbolic and temporary changes rather than substantive and permanent reform.
Improvements in House and Senate rules and even new laws will likely prove to be insufficient over the long term. Such changes may temporarily satisfy a disgruntled public, but without structural improvements, new rules and laws will only provide a façade behind which too many can continue to hide.
Unfortunately, our Commonwealth cannot wait to see if the General Assembly and Governor will reform their behavior through new rules and laws. We must immediately make substantive and significant systemic changes in the governance of our legislative, judicial, and executive branches if we want to restore both the integrity of our state government as well as begin addressing the important policy issues of our day.
This is why the Commonwealth Foundation believes we need to seriously consider holding a constitutional convention that is limited to addressing the structural deficiencies in our current constitution. We must change the incentives in the current system that have perverted the concept of public service in Pennsylvania. Whether it is the abuse and misuse of public money for personal benefit or the willful violation of the people’s contract with their government, it is clear that members in all three branches of government have effectively thrown off what Thomas Jefferson called the “chains of the constitution.”
We must restore those chains on the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. We can no longer merely rely upon good intentions when the incentives to turn public service into private gain are so strong. We must severely curb the abuse of power and the power to abuse. In short, we must forge new chains.
To do this, we believe this convention should be strictly limited to addressing the systemic governance of public officials in state government. We do not believe that a constitutional convention should be allowed to become a tool for policymaking. Whether is tort reform, education funding, universal health care, or any other policy issue, we believe issues of a policy nature are for the legislative branch to debate and ultimately enact, and are not appropriate for constitutional consideration or incorporation at a convention.
By focusing solely on structural changes to the governance of the three branches, we can introduce the proper incentives for public service that will finally permit and encourage a constructive process for addressing Pennsylvania’s most pressing public policy challenges.
We believe the kinds of structural changes that should be considered are those that would restore the ideals of a citizen-run legislature rather than the careerist model of today. We believe that a strictly limited government is the key to a truly good government. Our top recommendations include:
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 they currently exist in 15 other states.
We would recommend eight year limits in the General Assembly (four terms in the House; two terms in the Senate; or a combination of the two equaling eight years).
Session Limits. Pennsylvania is one of only four “full-time” state legislatures with an unlimited number of session days. Texas, for example, has nearly double the population of Pennsylvania with 23.5 million residents, yet its legislature meets only 140 days every two years (January 9 – May 28, 2007).
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 and Referendum. 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. 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 provided to public servants through an independent means. Many models exist in other legislative bodies that could be adapted for our purposes.
One potential model for determining compensation is to link salaries as a factor of the median income of Pennsylvania workers. Thereby public officials would receive compensation increases only when the overall incomes of citizens increase. Such an incentive would most assuredly motivate policymakers to pursue policies that improve our economic well-being.
Tax and Spending Limits. Government has no money of its own; it only has that which it first extracts from working Pennsylvanians. Today, the average Pennsylvanian must work from January 1 until mid-April just to pay his or her tax bills. Just since 1990, state government spending as a share of personal income grew by 11.6%. It is this growth of government spending that has funded and enabled the abuse and misuse of the public purse and the public trust.
Article I, Section 1 of our state constitution declares that “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.” Yet today state government exercises a virtually unfettered power to deprive citizens of acquiring, possessing, and protecting their property.
It is for this reason that we believe that government’s power to tax and spend must be substantively limited. Each and every tax or fee increase should be subjected to the approval of the people who will be compelled to pay them. A spending increase limit that reflects citizens’ ability to pay should also be established.
Elected officials at the state, county, municipal, and school board levels would retain their representative decision-making power to set spending priorities and allocate funds, but they would first have to receive the approval of the electorate to take and spend more of their property.
Only by limiting government’s power to tax and spend, can we curb the abuse of power and the power to abuse.
Obviously these structural changes are primarily related to the legislative branch. Of course, the executive and judicial branches are also in dire need of similar reforms to restore important checks and balances.
Thank you for this opportunity to share why we believe a limited constitutional convention ought to be given serious consideration, as well as some of to the reforms we believe will be critical toward restoring a more open, transparent, and accountable government.
Matthew J. Brouillette is a president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.