Some New Year's resolutions for the legislature
New Year's resolutions normally are the stuff of individual personal reflection. But members of the Pennsylvania Legislature should have a lengthy list as a group, all lumped under the heading of reform.
For a few members and former members of the corrupt, self-indulgent Legislature, the overriding resolution for 2011 will be figuring out how to stay out of prison. Several are under federal, state or county criminal indictments and awaiting trial; several more are under investigation. That, of course, illustrates the need for a variety of sweeping reforms.
New Republican majorities in both houses already have talked about a variety of reforms, with incoming Speaker of the House Sam Smith even raising the prospect of reducing the size of the 203-member House.
That would require constitutional changes that, if enacted, would not take effect until the 2013 session of the Legislature, at the earliest. During the just-completed session, lawmakers ignored persistent calls for a constitutional convention to get the ball rolling on such major reforms.
Absent a constitutional convention, there is much that the lawmakers could do on their own, beginning with a huge issue early in the next session.
A commission under the direct control of legislative leaders will redraw legislative and congressional seats in the wake of the 2010 census. Those leaders could resolve now to do so honestly. Drawing maps according to population on the ground, rather than to create or maintain political advantages, would do a great deal to improve the quality of governance. It would result in more and higher quality contested election campaigns, the incubators of ideas about governance.
Greater transparency would increase public trust in the discredited Legislature. Rather than resuming a pre-adjournment effort to water down the state's Open Records Law, lawmakers should move to make the Legislature subject to it.
As local, state and federal prosecutors continue to move against some lawmakers for misuse of public resources to aid their own campaigns, the Legislature should move to reward, rather than punish, whistle-blowing staffers who object to the practice.
In order to keep with hard-pressed Pennsylvanians, the Legislature should rescind its mechanism for automatic cost-of-living increases, scale back its preposterous pension benefit and require members to contribute to their health insurance premiums.
Lawmakers immediately will have to deal with a looming $4 billion budget deficit. But they should recognize that no policy that they enact will gain public confidence unless they first trim the excesses and curtail the abuse that have become synonymous with the institution.