The time for reform in PA is now
If ever there was a time for real reform in Pennsylvania state government it is now.
In the wake of indictments in what has become known as the “Bonusgate” scandal, the seedy backroom machinations of the General Assembly have been laid bare for all to see. It is not a pretty sight. All the people of Penn’s woods are now getting a good look at what Harrisburg insiders have known for years; that some incumbent legislators have used their offices not to serve the taxpayers, but rather to ensure the continuation of their own political careers.
That incumbents would seek to use the levers of power available to them to remain in office is of course not surprising, but Attorney General Tom Corbett’s investigation has uncovered an elaborate scheme to use public resources that allegedly violated numerous laws. The situation transcends the bounds of illegal behavior and speaks to the larger issue of the culture that currently pervades the state capitol building.
Last year, a large class of freshmen legislators – 53 in all – took office pledging to reform the way the legislature does business. Save for a couple of minor procedural matters; that reform has not happened. There have been no major systemic changes such as the enactment of term limits or redistricting reform. There have been no new limits placed on gifts and money lobbyists can spend on lawmakers. Recommendations in the House made by the speaker’s select committee on reform have one by one been consigned to legislative trash bin.
And, the legislature itself continues to operate in a closed door manner. Witness the recent adoption of a new state budget. A small number of legislative “leaders” crafted the spending plan and emerged with the governor to announce an “agreement.” Rank and file legislators were given a done deal to vote up or down. Worse, the backroom deal was reached after the constitutionally mandated June 30th deadline. Thus a rejection of the deal would have immediately plunged the state into a fiscal crisis. In the end, most legislators cast their votes without knowing exactly for what they were voting.
It has become crystal clear that power hungry culture that spawned “Bonusgate” remains alive and well at the state capitol. It is equally clear that, taken as a whole, the legislature is not serious about reform. If they were significant changes would have already occurred, and the secretive budget process we have gone through would not have prevailed.
The legislature has one more chance to redeem itself. Lawmakers will return to Harrisburg in September and for a while in October. There should be one issue and one issue only on the agenda: reform. It is time for this scandal-scarred, reprehensible institution to reform itself. There are, within its membership, some members who are men and women of character who truly want to bring about reform. They have, until now, been in the minority. These legislators need to cast of the shackles placed upon them by leadership and take bold action.
If the legislature again fails in this mission, then two courses of action remain:
First, voters replaced 53 legislators in 2006. Clearly that many, if not more will have to go in 2008, including some of the freshmen who either were not reformers or who failed to keep their promises to bring about reform.
Second, voters and taxpayers need to demand the convening of a state constitutional convention. It may be pie-in-the-sky to think the legislature can reform itself. If, after the voter revolt of 2006 and the Bonusgate indictments of 2008 reform does not occur from within, it simply never will. A constitutional convention will become our only option.
Should such an option be exercised? As our founding fathers so eloquently put in announcing America’s declaration of independence from England: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
That time has come.