A concentration on the constitution

The state has had five conventions since 1776.

Posted: April 03, 2007

HARRISBURG - The words conjure up history-book images of men in powdered wigs.

But a growing number of Pennsylvanians, from citizen bloggers to veteran legislators, believe the best way to change how the state is governed is a constitutional convention - a modern version, minus the quill pens.

"Given the number of scandals that have rocked the state Capitol of late, I believe we have reached a tipping point that necessitates a convention," said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, a Republican from Dauphin County who has held two recent hearings on the topic and plans to hold a third in Philadelphia next week.

It's an idea that is viewed with alarm in some quarters - including the governor's office - and in others as a route to more accountability in a capital already in the throes of shedding some of its secretive ways.

A constitutional convention could "bring people out of the woodwork who ordinarily wouldn't get their hands dirty in politics, and they will get involved in the making of history," Bob Butera says.

He has seen it happen. Butera served as a delegate to the 1967 constitutional convention, the most recent of five such conventions held in Pennsylvania since 1776.

Butera was a 31-year-old state House member from Norristown at the time of the 1967 convention. Delegates from all walks of life and all corners of the state met in Harrisburg over three months and put forth a package of constitutional changes later adopted by the voters.

The changes included creating a unified state judicial system, and allowing governors to serve two four-year terms instead of one.

It was, in Butera's words, "a smashing success."

In Pennsylvania, there are only two ways to change the constitution. The General Assembly can, in piecemeal fashion, propose changes. But that requires two consecutive two-year sessions of the legislature, followed by statewide voter approval.

Or changes can be made en masse, through a convention of delegates tasked under a directive from Harrisburg.

Where would it take place? How would delegates be selected? What would they be paid?

Would they be restricted in what changes they could consider, as was the case at the convention 40 years ago?

Even among those calling for a convention, there is disagreement about such parameters.

Matthew J. Brouillette, head of a conservative Harrisburg think tank, the Commonwealth Foundation, supports a limited convention to tackle a specific list of proposals. On Brouillette's list: legislative term limits, restrictions on lawmakers' salaries, and a process by which the public can work out laws on its own through statewide referendums. Residents of 24 states have such powers; not Pennsylvanians.

Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising PA, a self-styled reform group in Harrisburg, believes limiting what delegates might consider runs counter to the constitution itself.

Potts alluded to the powdered-wigs era: "To deny the right of citizens to discuss their own constitution is tantamount to King George telling Thomas Jefferson what he could discuss in the Declaration of Independence," he said. "It bespeaks a distrust of citizens that undermines the foundation of this noble experiment."

His and Brouillette's groups are among a handful that have coalesced after the controversial 2005 legislative pay raise to push for changes in Harrisburg despite having disparate ideologies on many issues.

Pennsylvania is one of 17 states to have held constitutional conventions since 1961; two-thirds of those did not limit their agendas, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Not every Pennsylvania constitutional convention has had laudable results: The one in 1838, for instance, took the right to vote away from black men. They didn't get it back until the U.S. Constitution was changed in 1870.

The chances of an "unlimited convention," where delegates could consider virtually any change in the constitution, appear slim. Piccola said perhaps only two or three senators - including himself - would vote for such a move.

Gov. Rendell, who last week announced a sweeping package of proposed legislative changes, including trimming the size of the General Assembly, is among those who fear a convention could get out of hand.

Some academics agree. "Care must be taken in making changes because of the law of unintended or unexpected consequences," said John L. Gedid, director of Widener University law school's Law and Government Institute in Harrisburg. "If it isn't broken, don't fix it."

Many officials, including some who have joined the recent push to make Harrisburg more open and accountable, are either cool to the idea or oppose it outright. That doesn't bode well for a convention's prospects.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) is unconvinced "that convening a constitutional convention is the best path," said his spokesman, Erik Arneson. "Many important reforms have already been made by the new legislature, and many others are moving forward." Pileggi last week introduced a bill to broaden the state's open-records law.

Piccola has scheduled a third and perhaps final public hearing on the convention topic April 11 at the University of Pennsylvania's Law School, from 10 a.m. to noon in Room 240B of Silverman Hall, 3400 Chestnut St. He is expected to introduce a bill calling for a convention after the hearings are completed.

Butera, for one, believes the time is right.

"I think the legislature has hit rock bottom and thus the people's faith in their state government has hit rock bottom," said the former House GOP leader, who now is special counsel to the speaker's reform commission. "Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you wake up and rise again."

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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