Pennsylvania it seems is giving Illinois a run for its money when it comes to claiming the title of the most corrupt state in America. While the Land of Lincoln garnered sensational headlines with the recent scandal that led to the impeachment of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, the Keystone state has been keeping pace with a variety of sleazy problems of its own.
Most notably former State Senator Vince Fumo, once a Philadelphia and Harrisburg powerhouse, was convicted on a wide range of charges of abusing his office for personal gain. His fall from grace also clipped the chairman of the state’s turnpike commission, Mitchell Rubin, who was essentially fired by Governor Ed Rendell after his alleged acceptance of a no work state job came to light during the Fumo trial.
Across the state, Attorney General Tom Corbett has been piling more charges on former State Representative Mike Veon. Veon now stands accused of giving state grants to a nonprofit he started, and then using the money for his own personal and political benefit. All of this is only part of a bigger scandal, known as Bonusgate, in which legislative staffers are accused of being paid hefty bonuses after taking time off to do political work.
And then there is the dirty little problem of pay-to-play. More light was shed on this practice after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was forced to decline an Obama Administration cabinet position when a pay-to-play scandal broke out in his state. It appears the Rendell Administration has turned pay-to-play into an art form in Pennsylvania with hundreds of millions of dollars in no bid state contracts going to firms that have given the chief executive hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions. The practice is apparently legal in Penn’s woods, although seedy.
Clearly state government needs to significantly reform the way it does business. In the aftermath of the now infamous pay raise controversy a wave of new legislators arrived in Harrisburg pledging to change the culture under the capitol dome. A few minor changes took place, but the reform movement essentially fizzled.
As the scandals continue to mount very little has been said about reform. Until this week when the House Republican Caucus unveiled a legislative package dubbed Pennsylvania’s Agenda for Trust in Harrisburg, or PATH.
"The status quo mindset, the corruption and the general lack of good judgment must end," said House Republican Leader Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) in announcing the legislation. "We stand at a crossroads to either keep going in the direction of the status quo or change paths and make substantive changes in the way our government operated."
Smith’s reform agenda is ambitious, and much of it is a direct reaction to recent events. For example, he is proposing that no public official can start a nonprofit organization while in office. This would prevent the fiscal shell game engaged in by the Beaver Initiative for Growth (BIG); the nonprofit Veon is accused of pilfering. The Republican leader also would ban legislative staff from doing campaign work during scheduled work day hours, an effort to prevent a repeat of the Bonusgate scandal.
The Pennsylvania Agenda for Trust in Harrisburg also takes aim at reforming some long term practices which have fallen into disrepute. For example it would shed light on the legislative practice of WAM (Walking Around Money) grants, which are similar to Congressional earmarks, by strengthening pre and post-audit functions, setting stronger guidelines for the grants, and putting everything on a searchable data base available for public inspection.
Also proposed is a package of bills that would end the practice of pay-to-play. The measures would have teeth because they would forbid any government contract from being awarded to a "person, partnership or corporation" that has donated to the campaign of a state official responsible for awarding that contract within the past year.
Additionally, Smith proposes strengthening the state’s "Sunshine Law" which requires public decisions be made openly and in public view, and the institution of various ethical codes of conduct for the legislative branch and for government contractors. He would also implement a searchable data base for all state spending.
Although ambitious, the Pennsylvania Agenda for Trust is a long overdue and necessary set of steps needed to restore public confidence in a state government that has become increasingly tainted by scandal and outdated practices. The problem is Smith and his Republicans are currently in a minority in the State House. But, both parties have had a hand in sullying the reputation of state government. Good government is not a partisan matter; therefore Democrats should be willing and eager to join Smith on the PATH to reform.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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