by Lowman S. Henry | January 15, 2007

A constitutional convention would bring real reform

The big buzzword under the state capitol dome these days is reform.  While it is a considerable accomplishment that just about everyone is talking about reform – and an historic opportunity is upon us to change the way Harrisburg does business – there is also peril in that some are only looking for window dressing and not real, substantial change.

Reform, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Most of those holding the reigns of power are going to want to implement the fewest changes possible while portraying them as major reform. Those truly seeking to open up the governmental process will settle for nothing less than serious, significant, structural reforms in the way state government does business.

The state Senate has become the first chamber of the General Assembly to institute some changes in its rules of operation.  The steps they have taken are important ones; like requiring a six hour “cooling off” period before major changes in bills can be brought to a vote.  The rules changes are good, but they can be undone by majority vote, so constitutionally mandated reforms will be necessary to ensure the measures are not temporary.

Over in the state House, Republican Leader Sam Smith is pushing for rule changes that would make government “more transparent.”  Meanwhile, House Speaker Dennis O’Brien has appointed a committee to look into what changes should be made.  He has named representatives David Steil and Josh Shapiro to head that committee.  Steil is a bona fide reformer, Shapiro a relative newcomer, so it is likely they will produce serious reform proposals.

This reminds us that some legislators are more credible agents of reform than are others.  For example, watching John Perzel posture as a “reformer” on his way to being cashiered out of the Speaker’s office was a hoot.  Likewise, listing to Governor Ed Rendell and House Democrat leaders like Bill DeWeese – all long-terms parts of the problem – talking about reform rings hollow indeed.

But others have been singing off the reform song sheet for a long time.  Keep on eye on senators like Mike Folmer and John Eichelberger, and real reformers in the house like Steil, Curt Schroder and Sam Rohrer.  The six heroes of the January 2nd coup against John Perzel have proven themselves to have the fortitude necessary to make the hard votes – and now should have some chips to cash in with new Speaker, Dennis O’Brien.

Reform also must extend beyond the legislature’s rules of operation.  For real reform to happen various key processes, such as how budgets are made, must be reformed.  That is why adoption of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights Amendment (TABOR) placing statutory, and eventually constitutional, limits on annual spending increases.  The most recent version of TABOR would hold the growth in state government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth.  That would be real reform.

Here is a quick and easy way to tell if a senator or representative truly is committed to reform: ask if he or she will support the calling of a state constitutional convention.  Such a convention is mandatory for real, concrete, unchangeable reform to happen.  If a legislator won’t support such a convention, then he or she is only trying to apply window dressing to the problem.

Certainly, any reforms that can be brought about by legislative action should be aggressively supported – after all constitutional conventions and amendments take time and reform needs to happen now, but such legislative remedies must be coupled with a constitutional convention to have any long-term effect.

Reform is in the air, but if ever there was a need for “eternal vigilance” it is now.  Otherwise, this historic opportunity will be squandered.