by Lowman S. Henry | September 08, 2008

PA General Assembly returns from vacation to confront reform agenda

dys func tion al, noun, 1 impaired or abnormal functioning; 2 abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group

The word “dysfunctional” accurately and succinctly describes the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It is an institution bereft of leadership, awash in timidity, and totally out of touch with we the people of Penn’s woods whom it was elected to represent.

Having left Harrisburg on a two month vacation, the General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene next week. When last seen in July the legislature was again passing a state budget after the constitutionally-mandated deadline. Despite the fact a wide array of monumental issues ranging from reform to health care to energy remained on its agenda, the General Assembly adjourned to golf courses and beaches across the land.

Members will, of course, object to that characterization. They will claim to be hard at work in their districts doing “constituent service” and “committee work.” Some of that type of activity does occur, but not enough to merit the full-time pay and perks Pennsylvania showers on its elected class. Others will claim they should not all be painted with the same brush, but the back-benchers through their silence have empowered their leadership, so all remain culpable.

This session of the legislature began with calls from nearly all quarters for reform. Precious little has actually occurred, and the odds are long against much further action. As it returns for the final few working days of the current session the Democratic caucus is beset with in-fighting over the fate of Majority Leader Bill DeWeese who apparently fiddled while Bonusgate burned. On the Republican side, Minority Leader Sam Smith is seen about as often as his Punxsutawney neighbor Phil in the dead of winter.

Dysfunction reigns.

That being the case the House of Representatives has one final chance at redemption. The state Senate has in fact passed a number of reform measures. They lay collecting dust on Bill DeWeese’s desk. In the legislative days remaining DeWeese should advance those bills to the floor for a vote. Then, either actual reform might occur; or at least each member of the House will have a complete voting record for which they can be held accountable.

Among the reform measures awaiting House action are:

  • A bill that would prohibit bonuses for Commonwealth employees.
  • A measure that would reign in state-paid vehicle use.
  • A bill that would post on the internet information on the use of state airplanes.
  • A bill that would require government salary information to be posted on-line.
  • The Taxpayer-Funded Advertising Transparency Act that would allow taxpayers to know when their money is being spent on advertising.
  • A proposal that would prohibit state agencies from entering into consulting contracts without prior review by the Attorney General.
  • Strengthening of penalties for violating the Sunshine Act.

Also, the House could take up debate and vote on passing the proposed Taxpayer Protection Amendment to the state constitution that would place a cap on future state spending increases tied to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

And, the most significant reform that could be passed: calling of a state constitutional convention.

If the General Assembly has proven one point over the past year and a half it is that it is incapable of reforming itself. As evidenced by the list of legislation detailed above passed by the Senate; that chamber has done a far superior job than the House. But, even the Senate has not passed reform proposals, such as a constitutional convention, that would bring real, structural change to state government.

It is unfortunate that voter focus has been diverted from the ongoing soap opera of Pennsylvania’s dysfunctional legislature. This year’s Presidential campaign is one of the most compelling in recent history, and all eyes are on the national race. But, voters should not neglect what is happening in Harrisburg. With every seat in the state House and half of the state Senate up for election in November voters must continue to demand action and accountability from their elected representatives in Harrisburg. To do otherwise would be to squander our best chance for real reform in a generation.