Yo, lawmakers, you have a chance to make some change

Posted: June 06, 2014

HEY, I HAVE a suggestion for rank-and-file lawmakers:

Do something.

You'll have lots of downtime during the next few weeks.

You'll mostly be sitting around waiting for six or eight legislative leaders to agree on a new state budget.

Once they do - and that should take a while - you get to see what you're voting on to try to dig the state out of the big budget hole your past votes helped dig it into.

Until then, you're pretty much irrelevant.

And by "you," I mean roughly 245 paid, perked and pensioned public servants sucking up tax dollars in a Capitol whose reputation could use some polishing.

So here's my thought: Use your time this month to help your institution.

There are two items you can champion.

Both demonstrate at least some interest in regaining a measure of public trust in a government that spent years squandering the same.

One is a gift ban. The other reduces the size of the Legislature.

Normally, such issues are offered in election years so sponsors and co-sponsors can brag back home that they're fighting for a better tomorrow.

Then these issues get stuck in legislative traffic jams during last-minute budget votes.

You can change that.

Collectively, you can tell your leaders you won't vote for any budget until these measures reach the House and Senate floors for final votes.

Neither is drastic.

In the case of gifts, 40 other states have either total bans or limits on what lawmakers can accept, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania (of course) has no ban, no limits.

So we see lawmakers, governors, judges and others accepting trips to Pebble Beach and Puerto Rico, tickets to Super Bowls and symphonies and, as reported by the Inquirer earlier this year, stacks of cash.

Yes, they're supposed to report such loot. But there's no real enforcement and no way to know what's unreported.

Rank-and-filers, this does not leave a good taste in the mouths of taxpayers.

A clean, simple bill, maybe based on a proposal by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County, and Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, to at least limit freebies would be a step in the right direction.

Same with reducing the Legislature's size.

The sixth-largest state doesn't need the largest full-time legislature.

Its annual cost, approaching $300 million, sure isn't worth its annual production.

Two bills are ready to go: Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver County, has a measure to cut the Senate from 50 to 45 members; GOP House Speaker Sam Smith has a bill reducing the House from 203 to 153.

Both require a constitutional amendment, which means they must pass two successive legislative sessions and win approval as a statewide ballot question.

I strongly suspect the latter would not be a problem.

The House passed Smith's bill in December. A Senate committee this week sent Vogel's bill to the floor with an amendment that would cut back the state judiciary and abolish the warm-bucket-of-spit office of lieutenant governor.

So there's opportunity right now.

And I know banning all but de minimis gifts and losing some lawmakers won't make Pennsylvania a national model of good government. That requires broad reforms in campaign-finance and redistricting, better voting rules, term limits (at least for committee chairs) and an ethics law with teeth.

But acting on gifts and legislative size sends important signals.

It says a majority of those elected to serve are interested in the institution they were elected to.

It says a majority of those elected to serve no longer sit silently awaiting orders from leaders who demonstrate small interest in the institution they lead.

And it says no matter what happens to this year's budget (which, by the way, looks like a disaster in the making) something positive came out of the process.

So do something, rank-and-filers. You have the votes. Make a start at making state politics better.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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