(This is the last in a five-part weekly series of columns, each focused on one area of government and politics that, if reformed, would make Pennsylvania better.)
Former State Sen. Rob Teplitz is a bit of a case study in stuff wrong with Pennsylvania.
In 2012, the Democratic lawyer won a Dauphin County seat long held by a Republican. He won in large part due to the partisan practice of gerrymandering legislative district maps.
In 2012, maps were so bad (and so Republican) and tied up for so long in court that – lucky for Teplitz – maps from 2000 (favoring Democrats) were used.
So, Teplitz, a reform-minded newbie, wins, joins the Senate and starts the Government Reform Caucus: bipartisan, 36 members.
It pushed for banning gifts to lawmakers. Teplitz pushed for ending lawmakers’ annual automatic raises. And guess what happened?
No legislative leaders joined the caucus. Its efforts went nowhere. And when Teplitz sought reelection, new maps favoring Republicans were in place, and he was defeated.
Gerrymandering lived. Reform died. Bad ideas triumphed over good ones.
That’s a long-time pattern in Pennsylvania.
Back in 1992, then-House Speaker Bob O’Donnell (D., Phila.), who sought to cut legislative costs, was ousted in a coup led by then-Reps. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) and Bill DeWeese (D., Greene), who became speaker.
The ouster was driven largely by House Democrats’ desires for bigger pensions and more perks. They eventually got both. O’Donnell resigned. DeWeese later went to prison. Evans much later went to Congress.
So it goes. There are other such stories, many of lawmakers who sought reforms but ended up leaving in frustration. There’s little benefit in pushing for change. And it doesn’t matter which party’s in power.
The result, over time, is a legislature known more for self-service than public service, with no evident interest in its image as oversized, overperked and insulated, in a state nationally known for corruption.
This series of columns argues that, absent reform (in basics such as campaign money, incumbent protections, voting laws), the sorry state of our state persists. Our politics don’t earn public trust. Our policies don’t bring progress.
There’s linkage between our politics — all but guaranteeing incumbents’ reelections while minimizing/discouraging citizen participation – and our policies.
A Columbia University study, which I’ve noted before, ranks Pennsylvania among the worst states in producing policy its people support.
Our legislature’s so dysfunctional it can’t do basics such as budgets. Even one of its leaders, GOP Senate President Joe Scarnati, said during the most recent budget battle, “This isn’t governing, this is an embarrassment.”
In Franklin and Marshall College polls over the last two years, Pennsylvania voters say the state’s biggest problem is “government, politicians.”
And last week, the online financial news service 24/7 Wall St. ranked Pennsylvania 46th in its annual report on best/worst-run states.
That’s a four-spot drop from last year, the sixth straight year of decline. We’re now ahead of only Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana.
You’d think our leaders would get the message.
You’d think there’d be efforts at change. Maybe start with institutional reforms: cut the legislature’s size; stop annual raises; ban gifts; require receipts for expenses; end outlandish pension payouts, at least to convicts. Anything to show respect for tax dollars.
Then move to basics.
Our state’s dismal ratings and voters’ views of politicians are what they are because flawed fundamentals of our politics lock up together, like boxcars on a freight train traveling in the wrong direction.
Combined, these fundamentals diminish democracy and maintain a system structured to resist reform.
Too much money tilts the game to special interests. Gerrymandering reduces voters’ choices. Statewide judicial elections make justice seem for sale. Outdated voting laws discourage citizen participation. Greed and abuse of public dollars tarnish trust in public service.
Or, sit back and watch the state remain a land of low expectations.