The leaders of the incoming House Republican majority in Harrisburg should be commended for promoting a public integrity agenda. Speaker-designee Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) and his colleagues want to adopt several reforms to make state government more transparent. Among them are immediate online disclosure of campaign donations, stronger “whistle-blower” protections for state employees who uncover corruption, and a one-year ban for campaign donors from receiving state contracts.
The Republican leadership recognizes that public trust of the legislature is at a low point. Beginning in January, legislators must take steps to restore the public’s confidence in state government. Another good early sign is Smith’s professed eagerness to cut the size of the legislature, one of the largest and most costly in the nation. In the short term, Smith wants to consolidate departments to reduce costs. His longer-term goal is to reduce the number of representatives, a cumbersome process that would require a constitutional amendment and passage in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly.
Most of the dozen or so proposals outlined by Smith are good ones. But the public should encourage the incoming GOP leaders of the House and Senate not to stop with these ideas. The most meaningful reforms in Harrisburg are not yet on the Republicans’ list. The most notable omission is campaign finance limits. The federal government and 39 states set limits on how much donors can contribute to individual candidates and political action committees; Pennsylvania allows unlimited contributions. When a wealthy individual, corporation, or union can donate a six-figure sum to a candidate, the concepts of a level playing field and fair elections become a laughingstock.
Incoming Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph (R., Delaware) spoke up immediately after the election in favor of campaign-donor limits. But since then Smith and his aides have discouraged such talk. If Harrisburg has any hope of restoring public trust, the public needs to believe that statewide elections are not being bought and sold to the highest bidders. The huge amount of money poured into the governor’s race by natural-gas drillers is the latest example. Republican reluctance to address this issue isn’t new or partisan. House Democrats failed to advance this cause when they held the majority.
Another crucial reform left undone is statewide redistricting, which is to take place next year. It’s too late to change the structure of the five-member reapportionment commission, but the legislature could still provide it with cleaner rules for its task. Among them would be banning the use of voting trends in precincts when drawing district boundaries, and forbidding the consideration of an incumbent’s home when creating districts. And any effort to strengthen the state’s Sunshine Law should cover the legislature itself more fully. Currently, too many aspects of the legislature’s operations are presumed by the law to be closed to public scrutiny.
The incoming GOP leadership is showing that it is listening to the public’s clamor for higher standards. The real test will be to see how far Smith and his colleagues intend to push this needed agenda. Voters will be watching.