Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Press Continues for PA Constitutional Convention Misguided

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with our PA Constitution. And all of the so-called reforms desired by this or that reformer can be done through the regular, though more deliberative and lengthy, amendment process already provided to state legislators and their supporters.

We've warned (see sidebar documentation) that a convention that is enabled via any means, with limitations expressed by the state legislature and referendum, has the potential to become unlimited once the delegates meet in session.

We have yet to see any valid argument that such a convention will not have the potential to go out of the scope of limitations. And that such a document, sold to the people as necessary to reclaim government, will not then be ratified by voters.

So our Declaration of Rights could be altered dramatically from its intent.

Net the Truth Online
New session renews hope for PA legislative reform
Published: Tuesday, February 10, 2009
HARRISBURG — With a new legislative session under way, specific reform proposals like term limits for lawmakers and calls for systematic change through a constitutional convention have a new lease on life.

Rebirth is implicit with the reintroduction of bills.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle talk of the need for reform despite the meager results in the previous session.

House Speaker Keith McCall, D-122, of Carbon County, and House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-116, of Luzerne County, have as much say as anyone over the extent of reforms. Mr. Eachus launched a formal review of House operations with the goal of bringing efficiency and savings. The results are expected next month.

Senate Republican leaders have revived a package of reform bills, including a ban on salary bonuses for state employees and posting salaries online. The Senate approved several of these bills last session, but they died in the House.

Despite the storm clouds over Harrisburg with the state budget deficit and Bonusgate corruption investigation into the use of public tax dollars for campaigns, seasoned activists are skeptical that fundamental change will occur.

“I think most of the oxygen is going to be consumed by the budget,” Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, said. “Reform legislation will probably be an afterthought like it was in the 2007-08 session.”

Gene Stilp, a Wilkes-Barre native who formed the group Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, believes even new Bonusgate expos�s wouldn’t spur major reforms.

“Bonusgate will expose the true nature of the Legislature,” he said. ‘‘But even with that they (lawmakers) will be hard pressed to make lasting changes in the Legislature.”

Mr. Brouillette hopes the new governor elected in 2010 will get the reform ball rolling.

“That’s what it’s going to take — a governor who truly wants to change Harrisburg,” he added.

One immediate issue is what to do about a $200 million legislative surplus spread among both chambers and legislative research agencies. Gov. Ed Rendell asked leaders to release the lion’s share of the surplus and cut 4.25 percent from operating expenses to help balance the state budget. Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, of Jefferson, plans to introduce a bill to turn over $100 million of that surplus.

Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow, D-22, of Peckville, announced Monday a caucus-wide hiring and wage freeze until state budget issues are resolved. House Republicans said they cut their budget 10 percent during each of the past three years.

Activists want a probing public audit to determine if legislative spending is for the stated purpose. The latest audit by Ernst & Young contains vague categories such as $2.9 million spent on “incidental expenses” in the Senate.

Auditing emerged as an issue since a state grand jury alleged some of the Bonusgate defendants charged campaign expenses to legislative accounts.

Several lawmakers have introduced bills to give the state auditor general power to audit the Legislature. Activist Eric Epstein of Rock suggests the public auditor provide more details on how taxpayers’ funds are handled and spent and whether any money was spent inappropriately.

The legislative audits need teeth to bring accountability, Rep. John Yudichak, D-119, of Luzerne County, said.

Mr. Brouillette suggests making three substantive changes in tandem to improve lawmaking.

He calls for reducing the size of the Legislature, limiting the days lawmakers spend in session and setting term limits for lawmakers.

“Limiting the number of session days, coupled with limited terms, would return Pennsylvania to a citizen-led Legislature,” he said.

Tim Potts, founder of the Carlisle-based group Democracy Rising, believes a constitutional convention, which would propose amendments for voter approval, is the only effective way to bring fundamental change.

“We have given up on the idea that the Legislature can reform itself,” he added.

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Full-time PA state Legislature little-changed in 40 years
New session renews hope for PA legislative reform

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