Four changes we need from Harrisburg lawmakers | Editorial

Pennsylvania Budget
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives: Where reform goes to die.

This is the first editorial of The Agenda, an ongoing series examining key issues facing the region and Pennsylvania. In the coming months we will tackle state reforms, the opioid crisis, guns and more.

Talk to us at agenda@phillynews.com.

What exclusive and expensive club in Pennsylvania has just 253 members, an annual budget of $325 million, and a staff of more than 2,220?

Here’s a clue: This bloated bunch spends your money but routinely resists transparency.

If you guessed the Pennsylvania General Assembly, you get the same prize as the rest of us — an oversized, underperforming government with a penchant for partisan bickering and a long history of rebuffing reform — until legislators hear a clamor from angry voters.

For example, there was the surprise, middle-of-the-night pay raises legislators voted to give themselves in 2005, just before adjourning for a long summer break. They had to rescind that a few months later and grudgingly agreed to some procedural reforms after angry constituents voted a few legislators out of a job.

Then came the “Bonusgate” criminal investigation, netting 12 Democrats and eight Republicans in 2008 and 2009 for using taxpayer resources to run political campaigns, putting a stop to that shady tradition.

It shouldn’t take scandal and political peril to secure commonsense reforms.

It might take an election, though: Most General Assembly seats are up for election this year — all 203 in the House and 25 of the 50 in the Senate. This is when voters have leverage.

That’s why, for the next few months, we will be presenting The Agenda, examining and advocating for commonsense changes  that will  benefit citizens.  For example:

Reduce the size of the state House

We already called on the House and Senate last month to stay the course on legislation to reduce the size of the House from 203 seats to 151. Pennsylvania now has the largest full-time legislature in the country.

The legislation is awaiting action in the Senate. The bill’s sponsor estimates it would save taxpayers $15 million per year.

Require receipts for “per diem” payments

Latin for “per day,” per diem better translates in Harrisburg to easy cash with no questions.

Members of the House and Senate are paid $87,180 per year. Those who live outside a 50-mile radius of Harrisburg also collect tax-free payments of up to $183 per day for travel expenses, with no requirement to produce receipts.

In the 2015-16 legislative session, taxpayers shelled out $2.4 million for per diems, according to a PennLive.com analysis.

Plenty of politicians cashing those checks ran on promises to run government like a business.  We don’t know any business that would pay travel expenses without seeing receipts.

No pay for blown budget deadlines

Businesses also operate on deadlines. But deadlines mean nothing to legislators. The General Assembly is required to finalize with the governor the state budget each year by June 30. But partisan bickering has sent the last three budgets well into overtime.

Legislators and the governor should have their pay cut off at June 30 until they sign a budget agreement. Gov. Wolf last month made no-budget/no-pay part of an ethics plan he proposed.

Uncertainty in the state budget process trickles down to municipal and school budget planning, causing fiscal uncertainty.

Ban gifts, detail outside income, and limit campaign contributions

Our government would function better if we knew exactly whom our legislators are representing. Just 10 states allow gifts to legislators. Pennsylvania is one of them.

Legislators must list gifts on their annual statements of financial interests, forms that don’t require enough detail. They must also list secondary sources of income from side jobs. These forms should require exact-dollar detail for side jobs.

And when it comes to campaign donations, Pennsylvania must go even further. It is long past time for campaign-finance limits on the money individuals and political action committees donate to candidates or organizations supporting them.

Need an example of how bent this system is? Some state legislators protect natural gas drillers from taxes and regulations. And the drillers spent at least $46.6 million on lobbying and $14.5 million on political donations in Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2017.

Whom were the state representatives and senators representing in all that?

That’s the question voters should be asking this year.

And we’ll be re-asking these questions frequently over the coming months, and monitoring progress.

If there are other reforms you think we should add to this list, let us know by emailing agenda@phillynews.com.