Pa. government reforms? Whaddya expect?

THERE'S SOME semigood news and the usual bad news regarding needed reforms in Pennsylvania government and politics. As we end the first quarter of 2013, let's review.

Keep in mind that in the Land of Low Expectations anything approaching progress deserves notation.

Yes, there is still reluctance to run to the light after the darkness is shown.

Take, for example, criminal charges filed last month in a huge, costly "pay-to-play" scandal involving the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

If you missed it, shrugged and already forgot about it, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced charges stemming from evidence that pike contracts routinely were rigged in favor of campaign donors and those giving graft to pike officials.

Well, shortly thereafter, state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County, offered a measure requiring anyone bidding on state contracts to report online any political contributions made during the prior two years.

The GOP-controlled House shot the measure down, 107-91.

"I think it's a good-government bill," Neuman tells me. "It's common sense and most people don't know it's not happening now."

When I ask what killed it, he says, "To be honest, I have no idea."

Hello, Neuman. Maybe because it's Pennsylvania?

On the other hand, and in the other chamber, the Senate recently passed bills that could save money and improve government transparency and politics.

The bills would make lobbyists electronically register and report expenditures, publicly posting them online within a week. It would require all campaign finance reports to be filed electronically (currently, and unbelievably, only about one-third are), make candidates and PACs raising $10,000 or more file more frequently and (surprisingly to me) allow online voter registration.

Sponsors, respectively, are Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County; Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County; and Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County.

(With a name like Smucker, it has to be good.)

So, props to these Republicans for their efforts.

Common Cause/Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman says he's "very pleased" with the Senate measures even though he notes that good-government groups have called for the same for a decade.

He also says that online registration (which 16 other states have) saves money; for example, when Arizona went online in 2002, state costs to process registrations dropped from 83 cents each to 3 cents each.

The Senate measures are now in the House. But that's the same House that voted against curtailing "pay-to-play" so, you know, who knows?

(An aside: States starting online registration experience spikes among younger voters, who tend to be Democrats, so it'll be interesting to see what the GOP House does as we move toward the 2014 elections.)

And speaking of good news/bad news, an internal audit shows that the Legislature's slush fund - excuse me, its "reserve" account - dropped by $43 million last year, leaving our honorables a measly $140 million of our money to play with.

So that's good. I guess.

The bad news is that the Legislature cost more last year, up $8 million to $307 million. But, hey, who can argue that our lawmakers aren't worth their growing price tag?

I mean, other than any sensate person paying taxes in Pennsylvania who's not a lawmaker or working for a lawmaker.

Now, as usual, a slew of reform bills are rotting in various legislative committees: Cut the Legislature's size, tighten campaign-finance laws, etc., etc.

There's even a new "Government Reform Caucus," co-chaired by Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, and Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County.

If you haven't heard of it, that's because Teplitz is a freshman senator, because no floor leader of either party in either chamber is in the caucus, and because its bold proposals include changing annual pay hikes for lawmakers to biennial pay hikes for lawmakers.

Any step toward any kind of reform is good. It's just that we're in a state in need of a stampede.

 


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer