Only We Can Help Us Now

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

It has been quite the month thus far in Pennsylvania politics. Highlights include a Republican resurgence in six statewide judicial races, an ongoing recount in a tight Superior Court race, the emergence of numerous 2010 candidates, and the downfall of one of the Commonwealth’s most infamous powerbrokers and his cronies.

Lots of column fodder, so little time.

Former Speaker and current legislator John Perzel surrendered on 82 counts of corruption on Friday. He faces a possible term in the clink rather than a four year term in the Governor’s Mansion, a position he was eyeing just 12 months ago. Perzel, along with former House Appropriations Chairman Brett Feese and eight current and former Republican House staffers allegedly spent $10 million in tax dollars on computer systems designed to reelect Perzel and other Republican legislative candidates. They are further accused of trying to cover up their efforts and of using tax dollars against the reelection efforts of members of their own caucus who did not obey Perzel’s commands.

Perzel joins his former Democrat House counterparts Mike Veon and Sean Ramaley (both of Beaver County) as key targets in Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett’s extensive public corruption investigation. Veon, Ramaley, and 10 former Democratic staffers and spouses were busted in 2008. They will stand trial beginning in December on charges of dishing out a cool $3.6 million in tax dollars for staff campaign work.

Bonusgate, corruption, embarrassingly late budgets, and mountains of unfunded mandates on municipalities and school districts prove that something’s got to give. Simply put, it’s time for a Constitutional Convention in Pennsylvania that will allow citizens to impose what the legislature will never inflict upon itself: a part-time, no frills citizen legislature. National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) data shows that Pennsylvania is just one of 10 states with a true "full-time" legislature. According to NCSL, Pennsylvania legislators make over $78,300 per year, almost $10,000 above the average salary of legislators in the other nine full time states.

Here are just five critical advancements that a Constitutional Convention could produce:

1—Limit the legislature to only 50 days each year to conduct business. This will limit time spent on frivolous bills like cell phone bans and force legislators to deal with the state’s most pressing problems. This is already done in dozens of states, says NCSL. Several examples include Alaska (90 days), Arkansas (between 30 and 60), Florida (60), Georgia (40), West Virginia (60), and Montana, which meets just biennially for 90 days.

2—Legislative pay should be reduced to a stipend of $15,000 per year with no vehicle leases, state-paid cell phone bills, or health care benefits. Reform opponents will claim that such changes will make legislative positions less attractive to those most qualified to serve. Conversely, a citizen legislature will produce a body more reflective of Pennsylvania as a whole, allowing for working professionals rather than professional politicians to hold legislative seats. Instead of having to leave their jobs and careers to serve the public, citizen legislators will experience the Jeffersonian ideal of having to live 300 or more days of the year under the very laws they have produced.

3—Cut each member’s legislative staff down to two full time, year-round staffers. The entrenched powers-that-be will howl that such restrictions on staff will hinder their ability to deal with constituent affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For three years this writer worked as Legislative Aide (and only Legislative Aide) to a member of the Virginia House of Delegates—a citizen legislature which meets for 45 days in odd numbered years and 60 days in even numbered years. Virginia districts are roughly equivalent in size and constituency as Pennsylvania districts. Meanwhile, their House members make just over $17,000 without benefits. Quality constituent service and substantive policy work don’t suffer when staffers are used to advance these goals rather than reelection efforts. The PA House and Senate can certainly do more with less.

4—No legislator should have more than one district office, nor should they have more than $1,000 per year in government-allotted postage to distribute constituent mail.

In late August I examined the number of district offices occupied by the members of the state Senate by visiting each of their web pages and adding up the number of district offices listed for each member. I found that 50 state Senators occupy 114 offices, all presumably paid for via leases funded by the taxpayers. Even more alarming, I took note that 36 of these offices were occupied by just eight members (one of which has seven offices and boasts 12 total staff people).

5—On the legislative front, a Constitutional Convention should impose two key rules for the legislature. First, a rule prohibiting any legislator from carrying more than 10 bills per session, reducing the time and energy spent on unnecessary legislation. Second, the Commonwealth Foundation estimated in October that legislators had access to over $201 million in Walking Around Money (known as WAMs) to spend at their discretion without review. A Constitutional Convention must eliminate WAMs forever.

John Perzel’s arrest coupled with the Democrat Bonusgate arrests of 2008 and former Senator Vince Fumo’s conviction this summer show that corruption is a bipartisan affair in Pennsylvania. The citizenry can do better and must press candidates seeking House seats, Senate seats, and the Governor’s office next year on where they stand on a Constitutional Convention to fix our mess in Harrisburg. Only we can help us now.

The writer is a PhD student at Temple University and resides in Philadelphia. He was Legislative Aide and Deputy Director of Communications to the late Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll (D—PA) from 2003-2004 and then to Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter (R—VA) from 2006-2009.