Reform dance: One step forward, one step back
The one step forward, one step backward pattern of addressing state government reform was on display last week in the House of Representatives.
Nearly one month after state prosecutors charged former Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow and seven others with a pay-to-play scheme involving contracts and campaign contributions tied to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, House lawmakers unanimously approved a bill aimed at deterring favoritism in awarding state contracts.
The measure by Rep. George Dunbar, R-56, Jeannette, would prohibit a state employee from evaluating a state contract proposal submitted by a former employer for two years after leaving that employer. The bill's goal is to end conflict-of-interest situations that lead to overpriced state contracts, Dunbar said.
He introduced this bill in response to controversies over no-bid contracts awarded during former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's tenure. State contract reform was a cause celebre among House Republican lawmakers when they were in the minority during 2007-10.
But the GOP-controlled House voted mostly along party lines to reject two bill amendments offered by Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-48, Washington, to tackle the issue of state contracts and campaign contributions.
One sunshine amendment sought to require all applicants for state contracts to publicly disclose campaign contributions made within two years of submitting a proposal or bid and for winning state contractors to update campaign disclosure reports annually.
The other amendment sought to prohibit the awarding of state contracts to anyone making a campaign contribution to local or state candidates within four years of seeking a contract.
The defeat of these amendments follows a pattern where action on long-stalled issues involving campaign finance reform and state contract reform is trumpeted by a legislative caucus when it's out of power and squelched by the same caucus when it's in the majority.
Somehow the political stars are not in alignment when these issues come up for a vote. A member of the minority caucus, which doesn't set the agenda, will often offer a floor amendment, as Neuman did. That amendment will be shot down either by a direct vote or indirectly in a parliamentary maneuver.
"They (party caucuses) try to feather the bed while they are in power," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania,
"We have had a long campaign to stop pay-to-play activities where public policy is used to featherbed campaign accounts," he added.
In recent weeks, there have been efforts to develop a bipartisan momentum on behalf of reform legislation. Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-15, Harrisburg, and Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-100, Quarryville, announced formation of a bicameral government reform caucus to seek common ground on bills that have a shot at final passage.
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-30, Hollidaysburg; and Mike Stack, D-5, Philadelphia, jointly introduced a set of bills tackling a number of reform issues. Two measures address pay-to-play contracts by requiring that payments made to state vendors by political committees be posted on the Department of General Services website and require a contractor to disclose the subcontractors they work with.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)