Pennsylvania’s government is a prime exhibition of Lord Acton’s well-known admonition that “power corrupts.”
The ongoing “Bonusgate” investigation – which so far has resulted in the indictment of legislators and staff for using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to win elections – is but the latest fire bell.
Despite the plague of scandal on Harrisburg, too many lawmakers remain unwilling to make government open and accountable to the people. Secretive slush funds controlled by legislative leaders persist, as does the clandestine allocation of “walking around money” to lawmakers for pet projects in their districts. Lawmakers still collect unconstitutional perks, such as tax-free “per-diem” pay, and benefit from taxpayer-funded incumbency protection, such as the mailing of glossy newsletters to voters.
Concomitantly, Harrisburg is paralyzed by its own inertia and unable to answer the people’s full-throated yell for meaningful action on a host of pressing issues, including property taxation, health care, transportation, and education.
Confidence and trust in state government have been thoroughly eroded, and we have no direct means for restoring it. Pennsylvanians are not empowered with initiative, referendum, or recall.
So two crucial questions have arisen: First, how do we restore effective, citizen-controlled government? Second, have we reached that tipping point where a constitutional convention is necessary to achieve the broad inter-related changes that affect every element of Pennsylvania government?
Pennsylvania has had five such conventions since the signing of Declaration of Independence, an average of one every 47 years. The last convention, from which came our current Constitution, was convened 42 years ago. History indicates that we are due for another, as does Thomas Jefferson’s prescience: “Every generation needs a new revolution.”
At a minimum, the time has come for a statewide public discussion about the nature of a government that can serve us effectively. This could include an exploration of a part-time legislature, term limits, the way we select judges, the tax code, enhanced citizen oversight in the governing process, and dozens of other challenges faced by modern republics in an age of advanced technology, limited resources, and high public expectations.
These questions and concerns were the impetus for the formation of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention Commission. In conjunction with the Civic Research Alliance, the commission recently unveiled “The Citizens’ Guide to a Modern Constitutional Convention.”
The publication examines how a constitutional convention could be developed and managed to broadly engage the people of Pennsylvania and diminish the impact of traditional powerbrokers, while maximizing the probability of creating a governmental structure that serves the citizens well into the future. It also examines alternatives that may be better suited to certain types of reform efforts.
The report serves as a catalyst for broad public debate on how to improve and modernize state and local government. It strengthens the hands of lawmakers and citizens who advocate restoring control of government to the citizens and who want to harness technology to have the most open, inclusive and well-informed debate in the history of the Commonwealth.
No one disagrees that if a constitutional convention were to be held, citizens-not lawmakers and lobbyists-must be in charge. After years of unrelenting scandal, Pennsylvanians deserve no less.
If we have faith in, rather than fear of, representative democracy, and if we want state government that’s open, accountable, and responsive to the people, then it’s time to convene public forums in every community, learn what citizens’ expectations of government are, consult with experts who know how to create structures to effectively accomplish those goals, and determine the best ways to achieve them.
And that may mean calling the sixth constitutional convention in Pennsylvania’s history.
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Matt Brouillette is president of the Commonwealth Foundation. Tim Potts is a co-founder of Democracy Rising PA. Barry Kauffman is executive director of Common Cause/PA. Olivia Thorne is chairman of League of Women Voters of PA Citizen Education Fund. “The Citizens Guide to A Modern Constitutional Convention” can be downloaded at the websites of these organizations.