John Baer: For Pa. Legislature, Constitution is an afterthought

Posted: October 09, 2012

AN EFFORT to overturn a new state law eliminating public assistance for some 35,000 Philadelphians and other needy Pennsylvanians points to yet another example of your Legislature's fundamental screwed-upedness.

You already know your Legislature is oversized, overpaid, overperked and underproductive - not to mention morally bereft and integrity-free.

No news there.

But there's another side to this august body: an underbelly of disregard for anyone or anything that doesn't serve its interests, including, in this case, the constitution each of its members is sworn to uphold.

Let me explain.

A lawsuit was filed in Commonwealth Court last week on behalf of low-income Philadelphians and groups that serve them by attorneys representing the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Community Legal Services.

It seeks to topple a law that, among other things, ended cash- assistance grants of about $200 a month to help mostly disabled or ill unemployed adults buy medicine, food and housing.

The suit says the Legislature violated the state Constitution when it passed the law, Act 80, on June 30 by ignoring specific constitutional requirements.

Among them: It can't change a bill from its "original purpose," a bill must cover a "single subject" to become law, and the House and Senate must each consider a bill for "three days" before passage.

It's pretty clear from legislative records and interviews that none of these provisions was met and that a policy affecting the lives of tens of thousands of citizens became law by fiat.

The grants in question stopped Aug. 1, and 69,115 Pennsylvanians stopped getting help, including 35,097 in Philadelphia.

Ending the grants saves an estimated $150 million in a $27.6 billion state budget. (The Legislature's own slush fund could largely pay for these grants.)

This assistance is for those who don't qualify for larger federal or state programs. It isn't available in many states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

But a majority of states (30), including Pennsylvania neighbors Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, offer such assistance, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Setting aside the merit of grant programs and attitudes toward welfare in general, let me tell you why the lawsuit is right and why the Legislature is wrong.

It's right because the Legislature, as a matter of routine and regardless of party control, ignores the state Constitution. It does so for two reasons: The Legislature can't get anything done on time, and whichever party is in power rams through whatever it wants.

In this case, House Bill 1261, which became Act 80, was totally changed, was not limited to a single subject and did not get considered for three days.

Originally, the law did one thing. It required the state to make assistance payments based on a recipient's county of residence. It passed the House April 12, 2011, after being considered for three days.

So far so good: single subject, three days.

But after sitting in the Senate more than a year, it was gutted and replaced with, among other things, a pilot program for human-services block grants, changes in some welfare-work requirements, new subsidies for adoptive parents and the end of general assistance.

This passed the Senate June 29, after at least part of it was considered for three days. It passed the House the next day, the deadline for an on-time budget.

So, since its original purpose is changed and it's no longer a single-subject bill and there's no three-day consideration of the new stuff in the House, it's illegal, right?

Ah, but wait. Legislative leaders get away with this claiming the "single subject" requirement is met since everything in the bill comes under the welfare code, and the three-day requirement is met since the same bill NUMBER was considered three days in each chamber: in the House in 2011, in the Senate in 2012.

Slick, eh?

(Also, the original subject, the residence issue, was simply ignored since it already passed as an amendment to another bill in June 2011.)

Courts tend to go along with this shell game because the Legislature controls court funding and judges' salaries.

But here's the thing: No matter what policy issue, the more lawmakers bend the law to their purposes, the more they diminish themselves and the law.

Be nice to see somebody in the Legislature or the judiciary step up, show some guts and end this charade.


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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