Paths to reform considered for state legislature
HARRISBURG - Talk about reform has outweighed results in the four years since voters unseated incumbents and sent large numbers of freshmen lawmakers to Harrisburg.
The scorecard since the newcomers arrived is a new open records law and a series of rules changes in the House and Senate intended to make the chambers more open and accountable.
Bills providing for broader changes like campaign finance limits appear stuck in the committee process even as the Capitol reels from ongoing corruption investigations and Pennsylvania's worst fiscal crisis in decades.
Legislative leaders say the reform effort is not over. They see rules changes as a more practical way to advance that agenda than trying to get legislation through two chambers and signed by the governor.
House rules adopted since 2007 ended midnight floor sessions, provide more debate of bills before voting, require ethics training for members and dilute the power of a leadership-controlled committee.
When he took the leadership reins in 2009, House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-116, Hazleton, instituted a new policy requiring that caucus contracts with vendors and consultants be reviewed and renewed every 45 days to make sure the contract terms are being met.
"I think the culture of Harrisburg is changing," Eachus said.
The Senate is preparing for a vote soon on rules to explicitly forbid senators and staffers from political activity on Senate time and to forbid senators from renting district offices from firms in which they or immediate family members have a financial interest. The latter proposal was prompted by revelations that Sen. Robert Mellow, D-22, Peckville, directed more than $200,000 in state-funded rent payments for his district office in Peckville to a company co-owned by his then-wife and then himself after their divorce.
The Senate is responding to the latest developments in the corruption probes, said Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Jefferson County, who assumed that role in 2007. Senators are studying the jury verdicts in the Bonusgate conviction of former House Democratic leader Michael Veon to see what is applicable to the rule banning political activity, he said.
Critics say chamber rules are no substitute for stricter laws because they lack permanence.
"Rules are the junk food of government," said Timothy Potts, founder of Democracy Rising, a legislative reform advocacy group. "They can be suspended at any time for any reason."
One idea being discussed privately by legislative leaders is the creation of an independent commission to recommend improvements. This could reprise the role of the 1969 Commission for Legislative Modernization, but no legislation has been introduced.
The 2008 Open Records law making more state and local documents open to public review is cited by legislative leaders as a high point of the reform effort.
But the Legislature exempts itself from the law's key provision: the presumption that records are open to the public. Instead, the law lists 19 topics pertaining mainly to finances or meeting records that are regarded as legislative records accessible to the public. The House and Senate chief clerks denied requests last year by The Associated Press to give the public the right to review correspondence between lawmakers and lobbyists. They said the correspondence is not covered by the list of 19 items.
Both chief clerks told Times-Shamrock Newspapers that formal open records requests must be submitted to obtain basic information about health benefits for lawmakers and staffers.
Setting an example
A number of newer lawmakers are trying to effect change through personal example.
An increasing number opt not to take the $163 per diem and submit receipts for daily expenses instead. In the Northeast delegation, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., and Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-124, Tamaqua, have done so.
"I believe this is the best way for me to be accountable for my expenses," Baker said. "By turning in actual expenses, people can view what they were."
Rep. John Yudichak, D-119, Nanticoke, has proposed a change in House rules to end the practice of collecting per diems without receipts. Yudichak's House Resolution 764 would require lawmakers to file for reimbursements with the chief clerk and set a limit at the top per diem rate used by the Internal Revenue Service.
"By not requiring any receipts for expenses, the system undercuts common-sense accountability standards employed by every private business and citizen," said Yudichak.
A veteran advocate for state government reform expressed disappointment at the pace of change. Given the increasing number of lawmakers who got elected on reform platforms, it's surprising they have not adopted more reform laws, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause.
The most effective way to change the culture at the Capitol is to put limits on campaign donations from individuals and political action committees, he said. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that allow unlimited contributions to candidates.
"Pennsylvania is three decades behind most of the rest of the nation in this critical area of protecting our elections and government from corruption," Kauffman said.