As someone who digs into Pennsylvania’s legislature for its lack of institutional accountability — and I mean dig like an archaeologist after buried relics — I’m a tad surprised by what, these days, is turning up.
It’s as if, after a millennium or so, Harrisburg’s mummified sense of moral behavior and ethical conduct is being unearthed.
Could it possibly spring to life?
I’m as skeptical as you. (Check that, more so.) But there are twitches of animation.
Take action to stop lawmakers convicted of or pleading to felonies from keeping their oversize, taxpayer-paid pensions.
An outrageous practice, too long ignored. And now, at last, it’s been addressed.
In near-unanimous agreement, the House and Senate last week voted to end paydays for perps by closing loopholes and extending the list of crimes currently triggering pension forfeiture.
Low-hanging fruit can still taste sweet.
And there was just one “no” vote: Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), a 26-year House member. I asked if he’s planning a felony but wants to protect his pension.
“No,” he said. “But I’d like to see pension forfeiture narrowed, not expanded.”
Vitali believes spouses reliant on retirement funds can be unfairly punished. And “many people are just against politicians and looking for ways to hurt them. I didn’t want to be part of that.”
He wasn’t. The House vote was 194-1. The Senate vote was 44-0.
Freshman Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin) sponsored the measure. He says, “When I ran two years ago, it was always on my target list as part of a government reform agenda.”
(If you notice, good reform ideas tend to be pushed only by newcomers.)
He was egged on, he says, by the case of former Senate Leader Robert Mellow (D, Lackawanna), who in 2017 got to keep his $245,000-a-year pension despite imprisonment because his federal crime (conspiracy to commit mail fraud) didn’t exactly match state crimes leading to loss of pension.
DiSanto’s bill ends such mismatches. Too bad it isn’t retroactive. If it were, it would whack some former Philly lawmakers, too.
In 2015, former Democratic Reps. Michelle Brownlee, Harold James and Ron Waters, snagged in an undercover cash-for-favors sting case, pleaded guilty to felonies in deals to keep their pensions.
Going forward, such deals won’t happen. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the bill into law this week.
Hopefully, it’s not the last of its kind.
DiSanto says he’s interested in pushing other long-stalled reforms, including those related to redistricting and a constitutional convention.
“It’s frustrating,” he says. “Long-termers say, `Oh, we tried that, didn’t work, let’s stay the course.’ Newcomers have a different perspective.”
Indeed, they do.
Second-term Philly Democratic Rep. Chris Rabb wants ousted lawmakers convicted of felonies to pay a good portion of costs of special elections to replace them.
Taxpayers now foot those bills, and in Philly they add up.
Department of State data show that 2015 special elections to replace Brownlee and Waters cost $173,000 each. A 2016 special election to replace former Philly Rep. Louise Bishop, who resigned after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor in the sting case, cost $177,000.
A special election to replace former Philly Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who resigned following conviction for bribery and other sting-related crimes, was held March 12. Costs are not yet available.
Rabb wants felonious lawmakers causing a special election to pay a $100,000 fine to help ease taxpayer costs.
Too bad it can’t be retroactive. But, hey, you know there will be more.
Then there’s second-term Philly Democratic Rep. Jared Solomon. Miffed that indicted Democratic City Councilman Bobby Henon remains in office (with no primary election opponent), Solomon wants to amend the state Constitution to allow for voter recall of elected state and local officials, including judges.
Add some pop to vox populi.
Solomon is to be joined by the Committee of Seventy, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters at a Capitol news conference Tuesday to push the plan.
These efforts seek increased accountability from elected officials. Any such increase in this state should be enthusiastically welcomed by all.
Then lawmakers can turn to gift bans, term limits, receipts for expenses, voting reforms, campaign finance reform, a smaller/part-time legislature, and an end to their annual automatic pay raises. In other words, extensive excavation.