Look who's seeing light of day on ethics

Pa. House is taking a serious look at reforms.

HARRISBURG - One House member wants to see all bills and amendments posted on the Internet before a vote.

Another wants to give rank-and-file members a chance to get at least one of their bills to a committee vote each session.

But, wait, there's more: No more midnight sessions. End "ghost voting." Eliminate the two-week legislative land rush known as sine die.

Like wayward men and women who have suddenly found religion, the Pennsylvania state House is at long last embracing reform.

Yesterday, one by one, House members - some freshmen, others longtime reform advocates - proposed ways to make government more open and accountable.

The lawmakers were testifying on the first of two days' hearings before the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform, a bipartisan group charged with overhauling legislative rules.

The proposals, many of them advocated by "good government" groups and backbenchers for years, represent the first step toward substantially changing the way the House conducts business.

Now it's morning in Harrisburg.

The spirit up here is not unlike that of Congress, where new leadership has heeded voters' message by making ethics reform a priority in the opening days of the session.

But for Pennsylvania voters, who ousted incumbents last fall in near-record numbers, the catalyst was the ill-fated legislative pay raise of 2005. Lawmakers' no-notice, middle-of-the-night vote to give themselves a double-digit raise was the last straw.

"The scale of opportunity is unprecedented," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. "This is in the truest sense of the word 'unique' in the governance of Pennsylvania."

Kauffman, who has testified before two other such legislative commissions in the last dozen years, said most of the proposals he heard yesterday were not new, but stood a far better chance at being adopted than in previous years.

Half of those who lined up to testify yesterday were newly elected members, many of them swept into office on promises of reform. Notably absent were members of either party's leadership ranks. Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.), the majority caucus chairman, was the only member of leadership scheduled to testify.

Rep. Chris King (R., Bucks), who ousted incumbent Rep. Matthew Wright last year, in large part because of voter anger over the pay raise, said his constituents wanted "transparency and accountability."

King proposed abolishing sine die (literally, "without day") the two-week voting period at the end of legislative sessions, where, as he said, unpopular and sometimes "mischievous" legislation is approved.

Rep. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said he wants to allow every member to have at least one bill receive a committee vote each session, ending the long-standing choke hold that leaders and committee chairs have had over bills, even those that may have majority support.

"It places way too much power in the hands of committee chairs and floor leaders and marginalizes the rank and file," said Leach. "This dictatorial control over what we even consider also leads to the backroom deals that voters say they are sickened by."

Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) told the commission he wants to prohibit lawmakers from running nonprofit organizations which receive state funds.

"It's a corruption of the legislative process," said Vitali. "Why should they act as mini-governments and decide where the money goes?"

Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a Philadelphia nonprofit group which has close ties to State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), is at the center of a federal corruption investigation.

The reform commission is expected to make its recommendations to the full House by mid-March. The momentum is there: The House yesterday approved temporary rules along lines similar to some of the reform proposals. And the Senate adopted seven rules changes of its own earlier this month in the same spirit of openness in the legislative process.

Among the Senate's changes: Session times will end before 11 p.m., amendments will be posted to the Internet before being offered on the Senate floor, and all roll-call votes will be posted on the Internet within 24 hours of a vote.

Larry Frankel, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the reform commission's proposals, by expanding the role of the public, could vastly improve quality of the legislation that is approved.

"How many laws have been declared unconstitutional because they didn't follow the rules?" Frankel said. "This could result in a product that is more reflective in the people of the Commonwealth and not just leadership."


The public can submit reform ideas by e-mail to

reform@speakerobrien.

com.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.