Pa. Senate's opportunity to make Legislature look better

GOP House Speaker Sam Smith (File photo)

HEY, budget watchers, there's good news and bad news.

OK, I'm kidding, there's no good news.

Your governor and Legislature are wandering Dante's circles of hell en route to some agreement certain to be late, contain new taxes and meet all the low expectations that Pennsylvanians learn to live with.

Current status?

The first circle, limbo: Nobody has a clue how it all turns out.

Philly schools, pension reformers, free-market boozers and others reliant on action from Harrisburg can do nothing at this stage but wait.

And although I'm tempted to borrow from Dante to suggest that stakeholders "abandon all hope, ye who enter here," a late budget at least provides more time to make a case for other issues.

Which is what I will attempt to do now.

Stay with me.

Pennsylvania's famous for resistance to change and anything approaching progressive governance.

This leads to stagnation, no new ideas and policies that put off problems rather than address them.

Meanwhile, the Legislature, famous for corruption, holds a horrid reputation because as its bad eggs get tons of attention, it never seeks to improve its image as an institution.

Well, there's a way to start.

The House last December adopted a measure sponsored by GOP Speaker Sam Smith to reduce the House from 203 members to 153.

It passed by a margin of 148 votes to 50.

That's right. The House voted nearly 3-to-1 against its own bloatedness.

(I may have mentioned in the past that we have America's largest full-time Legislature - costs too much, does too little - despite being the sixth-largest state.)

Not surprisingly, almost all the "no" votes were Democrats; less surprising, almost all Philly lawmakers voted "no."

This is an overdue reform that sends a message of intent: We are stepping toward better management of tax dollars, improved efficiency and real-world reality.

And that's a good thing.

But now, Republicans are holding it up.

Senate GOP leader Dominic Pileggi doesn't want to move a House reduction without a vote on a Senate reduction - from 50 members to 45.

But GOP Senate President Joe Scarnati doesn't want to reduce the Senate.

He amended a bill to do so, adding language abolishing the office of lieutenant governor and dumping two of the seven state Supreme Court justices and four of 15 Superior Court judges.

On one hand, this could be a "poison pill" designed to kill the whole issue and keep the Legislature feeding on Dante's third circle, gluttony.

On the other hand, it could be an opportunity.

Give Scarnati his due. Keep the Senate as is. Pass the House reduction.

And the Senate's not the problem here. Nine other states have 50 senators or more. Fifteen other states have 45 senators or more. No other state has 203 House members. Most have half that, or fewer.

(OK, New Hampshire's House has 400 members. But they're paid $100 a year to meet once a year for a month and a half. They're part time. We're "full time.")

Timing is an issue.

Reduction requires amending the state Constitution, which requires passage in two successive sessions, public advertising 90 days prior to a general election and a statewide voter referendum.

That last thing? No problem.

And passage and meeting the advertising deadline means acting by the first week of August, hence the benefit of a late budget.

There is zero evident benefit to taxpayers in paying for the nation's largest full-time House. Trimming it saves tons of money and likely improves management.

As importantly, it demonstrates a willingness to change, to silence "they'll-never-do-that" critics and to start to shed a nonprogressive reputation.

Then we can work on no longer being the only Northeast state with no limits on campaign contributions, the only Northeast state with no law against discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity, the only Northeast state electing judges at all levels, etc.

The alternative is for lawmakers to stay in Dante's fourth circle - greed.