Money for a class of one
The $29 million in earmarks for local programs and projects in the new state budget calls attention to Pennsylvania's method for addressing special legislation.
The Pennsylvania Constitution bans local or special laws for eight broad categories, including regulation of local governments, creating corporations and regulating labor, trade, mining and manufacturing. The Constitution says any appropriation made to a charitable or educational institution not under absolute state control must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers.
These restrictions are in the 1873 Constitution, adopted during a time of economic turmoil and agitation for political reform. In the 140 years since, lawmakers have found ingenious ways to get around them.
Their tried-and-true method is on display in the new fiscal code.
This provides $14,000 for a math lab in a school district in a city of the third class in a county of the third class, which is Jeannette in Westmoreland County, according to legislative staffers. Some $250,000 for transportation assistance tied to employment needs goes to counties of the second class, of which there is only one, Allegheny County. An academic medical center establishing a regional campus in a county of the fourth class gets $2.5 million. That's for Penn State Hershey Medical Center's extension in Centre County.
This idea of writing a law to affect a class of entities even if it's only a class of one emerged soon after the 1873 Constitution was ratified by the voters.
The Constitution sought to curb the practice because special laws were the scourge of the legislative process, leading to wholesale bribery and favors for the few.
Of 9,230 laws enacted between 1866 and 1873, more than 8,700 were special and local acts and 450 of those dealt with railroads, wrote Frank B. Evans in "Pennsylvania Politics" 1872-1877.
In 1864, for example, special laws were enacted to provide relief for individual Union soldiers, help Chambersburg Bank rebuild after being burned by Confederate raiders that year and authorize the directors of the Lackawanna and Bloomsburg Railroad Co. to borrow money up to a certain limit.
"Corrupted by special interests and by mercenary lawmakers, the legislative process had become an open scandal," wrote Evans. "Scores of private bills were introduced, many with identical titles, of whose contents even their sponsors were frequently ignorant."
Only the New York State Legislature in Albany had a worse reputation than Harrisburg, he added.
Another provision in the Constitution requires local legal notice when a special or local bill is introduced involving a non-restricted topic.
In the early 1980s when a group of lawmakers introduced a controversial bill to legalize casinos in the Poconos only, they had to publish a legal notice in local newspapers of the bill's introduction.
The draftsmanship in the fiscal code does justice to author William Faulkner's profound observation that the past isn't even past.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)