Record low approval ratings for lawmakers returning to Harrisburg
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania legislators are back in the Capitol for a fall session with a packed agenda, at a time when their job approval rating is at its lowest point in recent history.
About 11 percent of voters say the state legislature is doing a good job, according to the latest poll from Franklin and Marshall College conducted in August. Another 54 percent said the legislature is doing “only a fair job.”
Some lawmakers argue the low numbers are, in part, due to their constituents’ “limited knowledge.”
Only two in five voters would like to see their state representative re-elected, and only one-fifth of voters believe most members of the state House of Representatives should be re-elected.
Terry Madonna, director of the college’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, pointed out the number of voters who approve of the legislature is similar to numbers that followed the infamous 2005 pay raise vote and the first round of Bonusgate prosecutions, when lawmakers were charged with using public resources for campaigns.
But voters, typically, don’t dole out praise for lawmakers.
“In general, the legislative approval ratings have been relatively low,” he said. “Comparatively, it’s the lowest positive job performance ratings since I started asking the question in 1999.”
In 2003, the number of voters who said the Legislature was doing a good job was twice what it is today, at 22 percent. Seventeen percent of voters rated the legislature “poor,” compared to 29 percent in the August poll.
No voters said the Legislature was doing an “excellent” job, a rating that historically has hovered in the low single digits.
The college interviewed 594 voters for the poll in August, with a sample error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, was asked about the Legislature’s approval rating at a Pennsylvania Press Club event Monday.
“I think oftentimes people have limited knowledge as to what happens here in Harrisburg, and people are just disdainful of government overall,” Turzai said.
Poll data somewhat backs up the theory, as voters just don’t seem to like politicians as much as they once did.
“Positive job performance ratings have declined an average of eight points for the elected officials tested,” concludes the Franklin and Marshall poll.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said he thinks the Legislature’s low approval is inextricably linked to polls for Gov. Tom Corbett, and that lawmakers get painted with “the same broad brush” used on Corbett.
“I think the General Assembly is getting caught in the swath of the governor, who’s not offering policies consistent with the needs of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Madonna said voters have heard about budget cuts to education and human services, as well as an inability of lawmakers to agree on agenda items.
“When you get into that narrative, it’s really very tough to find a positive spin that you can put on the legislator’s work,” he said.
This fall, lawmakers have a lengthy to-do list: it includes transportation funding, liquor privatization and pension reform from the governor’s agenda, plus continued conversations about property tax elimination, charter school funding and open records laws.
Twenty-nine percent of voters said legislators should focus most on passing a transportation funding plan. Another 24 percent said Medicaid expansion was their top priority, while 22 percent said “something else.”
To some lawmakers, improving public perception means following through with the public’s bidding. Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, is a freshman legislator who said he’s “hopeful, but not optimistic” lawmakers can change public perception.
“We’re doing things the public doesn’t even want, and we can’t even get those things done,” he said. “For our approval rating to go up, we actually have to be what we’re supposed to. We have to represent the public’s wishes.”
Contact Melissa Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.