As Pennsylvania's legislature pays tribute, taxpayers pay too

Abraham Lincoln is commemorated each year in a resolution passed by Pennsylvania legislators. Above, Lincoln at Antietam.
Abraham Lincoln is commemorated each year in a resolution passed by Pennsylvania legislators. Above, Lincoln at Antietam.
Posted: February 22, 2011

HARRISBURG - His face is on the penny. His name is etched on schoolhouses, stadiums, and highways. He's got a holiday, for heaven's sake.

Does the Pennsylvania legislature really need to prepare, print, and pass a resolution every year recognizing Abraham Lincoln's birth?

Its sponsor has no doubt.

A Civil War enthusiast, State Rep. Harry A. Readshaw (D., Allegheny) has fought to preserve monuments at Gettysburg and presides at an annual Civil War ball in the Capitol Rotunda.

"I have found out that our nation's history seems to have been misplaced," he says. "The public needs to be reminded."

Welcome to the world of "noncontroversial resolutions."

Unlike bills, resolutions don't change state law. They recognize arts and athletic groups, commemorate battles, propose new names for mountains and streams, and bring attention to afflictions ranging from brain injury to lower-back pain.

In the 2009-10 legislative session alone, 1,551 resolutions were considered by the General Assembly, 1,092 of which were adopted. Topics included Lithuanian Independence Day (Feb. 16) and the Walnut Street Theatre's 200th anniversary (Feb. 11).

Some are labeled "controversial" and die in committee, or are rejected if they call for actions deemed too costly, such as conducting a study, says Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

Others start off noncontroversial and lose the non. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) made waves last year when he opposed a resolution recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month because the measure mentioned male rape victims. Metcalfe saw this as an effort to advance the "homosexual agenda."

It passed, 194-1.

Pennsylvania is hardly unique in this. New Jersey legislators vote on so many "ceremonial" resolutions that they don't track totals. Congress considered 2,827 resolutions last session.

The latest batch of resolutions moving along Harrisburg's legislative conveyor belt includes one from Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) making Feb. 14 "National Socks for the Homeless Day." It urges donations of socks and honors Joy of Sox, a nonprofit in Leach's district that raises awareness of the medical ills associated with being homeless and sockless.

In a time of looming state deficits, how much does a resolution cost the taxpayer? Good luck getting the answer in the Capitol. Too many variables, officials say.

"We've never tried to quantify it," says Robert W. Zech Jr., chief of the Legislative Reference Bureau, where all resolutions go to be researched - and vetted by a bank of 10 staff lawyers. "Some come in fully prepared, some are shreds of an idea. I wouldn't even know where to begin to start."

This irks one critic.

"It's telling that the legislature can't confirm how much they are spending on this," says Tim Potts, a former House aide who founded the Harrisburg watchdog group Democracy Rising. "If they can't tell you how much it costs, they shouldn't be spending our dollars on it."

Besides staff time and voting time, there is the cost of printing and preparing resolutions in formal covers (padded, $9.50; un-padded, $4.10; card stock, less than $1) for delivery to groups they honor.

Multiply that by 1,092 resolutions enacted, and - ka-ching!

Officials say not all resolutions get covers - many are sent out electronically. Plus, streamlined procedures zip the measures through House and Senate roll-call votes, saving floor time.

"Overall, resolutions are still a tiny fraction of what gets done here," Arneson says.

Zech, involved in legislative research for 38 years, says resolutions reflect the global politics of the time. A 1980s resolution called for ending apartheid; another bemoaned strife in Northern Ireland.

But we call the question. Are resolutions worth it?

No, votes Potts. "They certainly don't accomplish much benefit to the state as a whole, but they placate constituents."

Aye, votes Readshaw, who has offered the Lincoln measure in three sessions. He worries about the 16th president's place in memory - especially since Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays have been conflated into a generic Presidents Day.

Readshaw plans to present the resolution (in a $4.10 cover) to Lincoln - or rather to actor Jim Getty, a Lincoln look-alike, at the Civil War ball next month.

"I get into schools to talk to young people, and it's disheartening what [they] are not aware of," says Readshaw, who also sponsors a Random Acts of Kindness Week resolution. "I do these in the hope that I might touch someone who will pause and think about something that has value."

Or as Senate aide Arneson puts it: "Every resolution is important to somebody."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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