Long-term state reform is tied to constitutional change
HARRISBURG - Creating a new type of Legislature won't be done overnight. It requires amending the state Constitution, a time-consuming process.
Lawmakers of both parties have sponsored proposed amendments to make the Legislature less expensive and allow for more competition for legislative seats. These include reducing the number of House and Senate seats, creating a one-chamber Legislature, reverting to a part-time legislature that meets less often, creating a non-partisan commission to redraw the boundaries of legislative seats every 10 years and setting term limits for lawmakers.
Constitutional change can come in two ways: through separate amendments or a constitutional convention, a device rarely used in Pennsylvania's history. In both cases, the legislature launches the process and statewide voters approve the final product.
Several groups, including the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and Democracy Rising, want a "citizens" constitutional convention to take up the work of reforming state government and the legislature as well.
This means citizen-delegates would decide what issues to address, not the Legislature, said Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising, a legislative reform advocacy group.
Delegates to this convention could be selected through a process similar to presidential nominating conventions where delegates are elected at the ballot box and through at-large selections designed to achieve diversity. Earlier conventions were attended by too many white males and attorneys.
"The delegates selected should resemble the citizens," Potts added.
The six gubernatorial candidates seeking nominations in the May 18 primary are divided about a constitutional convention, let alone a wide-open one. Four candidates - state Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, all Democrats, said at a recent debate at Harrisburg Area Community College they would support a convention limited to addressing specific issues. But none have indicated they would lead the charge for one.
Two other candidates - Sen. Anthony Williams, D-8, Philadelphia, and Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-128, Berks County, voiced objections. Williams warned a convention could be overly influenced by special interests. Rohrer said a convention could create problems by offering too many unpredictable changes.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association recently took a step in trying to envision a framework for a convention. The PBA formed a commission of lawyers, legal scholars and judges to offer recommendations for topics dealing with the legislature, local government and taxation.
The last convention, held in 1968, was specifically limited to dealing with local government, judicial and legislative reapportionment issues.
That convention was spearheaded by Gov. Raymond Shafer and the political establishment. The Legislature put a ballot question authorizing the convention before voters. Voters approved the convention and then elected 150 delegates based on state senatorial districts.
By limiting topics, the '68 convention skirted the red-hot political issue of the day: whether or not to levy a state income tax. The convention met for 90 days. The five amendments it recommended were ratified by voters. One fixed the number of House lawmakers at 203 and senators at 50.
Since the '68 convention, the constitution has been amended 37 times with the legislature as the catalyst. None of these amendments addressed legislative matters.
Among the long-term reform proposals, reducing the number of House and Senate seats generates the greatest buzz.
A House reform commission formed by former House Speaker Dennis O'Brien considered a seat-reduction proposal in 2007, but wound up rejecting it.
Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, has suggested a very gradual approach to downsizing. He has sponsored legislation to reduce the Legislature by 20 percent over the next 40 years. A special commission would eliminate one Senate seat and 10 House seats at each reapportionment.
This would help would circumvent the political hurdle that incumbent lawmakers won't vote to eliminate their own legislative districts, Argall said.
"How do you ask someone to vote to cancel their own job," Argall asked at a press conference when the bill was introduced. "I'm trying to find a way to move a bill forward that always failed in the past."
In a sweetener to get lawmakers' support, the legislation calls for increasing terms of House lawmakers from two year to four years so they don't have to campaign as often.
The pitfalls of the lengthy amendment process is evident with efforts to create a reapportionment commission with non-partisan members, replacing the current commission dominated by House and Senate leaders. To have such a commission ready for the 2011 reapportionment, Pennsylvania needed to take action back in 2008. That deadline passed and, therefore, any impending changes to the commission makeup wouldn't take effect until the 2021 reapportionment.
Thus, the only effective reapportionment change that can be made before 2011 is to enact a law setting guidelines for the current commission to follow, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause.
Even without a convention or new constitutional amendments, lawmakers still have plenty of opportunities to make significant reforms.
They can do so by enacting new laws to end per diems and require receipts for daily expenses, require that themselves and staff help pay for their own health care plans, set term limits for legislative leaders and committee chairs and cap the amounts in leadership-controlled account to give a few examples.
"Most of the reforms people talk about on a daily basis don't require a constitutional change," Kauffman said. "There's no reason they (lawmakers) can't do it and do it very quickly. They seem to lack the political will and appear to think they can ride out the storm. I'm not so sure they're right this time."
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