In the wake of another round of indictments alleging corruption in the legislature, Harrisburg is again embracing “reform.”
House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), whose name appeared frequently in the grand jury’s report despite not being charged, proposed an “ethics officer” to field complaints of misconduct. He also wants rules to bar staffers from campaigning on state time, or using government equipment for campaign work.
Both practices already are illegal — hence the heavy workload of Attorney General Tom Corbett these past two years.
Smith sounded very much like former Democratic House leader Bill DeWeese (D., Unindicted) did 16 months ago. He professed shock and surprise that close colleagues in his party’s leadership, including former Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.), allegedly spent public money illegally on political campaigns right under his nose.
There’s nothing wrong with Smith’s proposal for corrective action, except it doesn’t go far enough. The culture in Harrisburg of blurring the political and the legislative is too pervasive to be changed by new caucus rules, which could expire later. Smith rightly wants to bar government contractors from making campaign donations, but doesn’t touch needed donor limits.
Gov. Rendell also voiced support for reforms. He advocates campaign-finance limits and merit selection of judges, among other needed overhauls.
If anyone knows about the need for campaign-donor limits in Pennsylvania, it’s Rendell. He’s a prolific fund-raiser who has taken full advantage of the state’s absence of restrictions.
Another desperately needed reform is nonpartisan redistricting. The current process controlled by the party in power in Harrisburg has led to districts that are nearly impossible for incumbents to lose. That twisted principle is at the core of the indictment against Perzel, who allegedly spent public money on sophisticated computer programs to target likely GOP voters.
The problem in Harrisburg is that talk of reform invariably withers. The public turns its attention to other matters, and the legislature puts aside any commitment to real change. It happened after the pay-raise scandal of 2005. The inertia of incumbency wins out.
In this atmosphere, calls for a citizens’ constitutional convention are more compelling than ever. It holds the promise of sweeping change in a state government now failing the public.
The government watchdog group DemocracyRising/PA is conducting an online petition drive. It urges the legislature to authorize a referendum for November 2010, to select a representative convention delegation, and allow citizens to decide what parts of the constitution, if any, should be changed. To view the petition, go to www.democracyrisingpa.com/go/petition.
It’s time for the legislature to hear what citizens think about the chronic scandals and lack of progress in Harrisburg.