Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pittsburgh Post Gazette Perspective 11/12/06

This is the original post. Some editing was done on publication in, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Perspectives Op/Ed.

Knocking on doors, manning information and voter registration tables, and just discussing political issues invariably leads to responses such as, “They’re all the same.” “There’s nothing we can do about it.” “They’re all in it together.” Many voters are just tired of the current political climate, partisan bickering, and gerrymandered districts. Many do not see why their involvement really matters.

In Pennsylvania, this attitude changed after the worst political blunder this state has ever seen, the infamous Two AM legislative pay raise. An ill advised move by the Legislature that was unconstitutional and arguably illegal. In the following election a PA Supreme Court judge was sent packing and in the May primary 47 state legislators, including two leaders, were either defeated or retired--choosing not to run a campaign.

This past Tuesday seven more members (at last count) were sent home. They included one of its most powerful house members, who opted to fly to work apparently more often than he drove. In a legislative body that typically boasts a 98% retention rate, where death and retirement are more common than election defeat, this was remarkable change.

The average voter, choosing to vote about 25% of the time, is also a forgiving voter. We look to our elected officials to “learn a lesson” and change things for the better, because, after all, they work for us. Several Western PA Legislators listened and formed the bipartisan house reform group, which the Post Gazette reported on this past July: House Rebels try to break the iron grip of leadership. Its members include: Paul Costa, Peter Daley, Frank Dermondy, Brian Ellis, David Levdansky, Mark Mustio, John Pallone, Joseph Petrarca, Harry Readshaw, Jess Stairs, Tom Stevenson, and Thomas Tangretti.

This past summer the Reform Initiative met and devised four groups: Rules Revision, House and Caucus Operations, Campaign Finance Reform, and Constitutional Convention Research. The subtitle of this initiative is, “Restoring Faith in Pennsylvania Government, an Agenda for Reform.” Some measure, although not a strong measure, of lobbying reform has already passed in the House. They note that a “myriad” of campaign finance proposals exist and are the members are seeking common ground prior to moving forward. A constitutional convention has been discussed as has making legislative accounts open to the public.

While this is a positive start, several other reforms are screaming to be implemented. Many legislators sign on to bills simply for PR value. Bills should be limited in number to focus on legislative priorities, then be discussed and voted on, which does not always happen. Many bills that are written are never debated on the floor. Our public records should be the most open in the country. The size and cost of the legislature and its perks and expenses should be reduced. Term limits should be instituted and leadership positions rotated. Too often the power in Pennsylvania is held in the leadership’s hands and out of the hands of rank and file members. Discussion and exchange of good ideas may never occur. Perhaps, most importantly, legislative districts must be reflective of the citizens, and should be drawn by a neutral body so all races are competitive, voters have a choice, and legislators records are held to a high level of scrutiny.

We typically don’t have legislators on the news, on the radio, or in the newspapers to congratulate them for a move in the right direction. Listeners don’t call talk shows to heap praise on governmental agencies. We only seem to only pay attention when they stray from public service to self service. The House reform group is a step in the right direction, away from the “iron grip of leadership”, and toward reform for the people.

It should become clear that we are the driving change in this state government. Voters are the leaders and have initiated this change. Voters will also implement change in the future when they are offered an alternative, qualified candidate at the polls. We should have competitive elections, not unopposed candidates. If we want Pennsylvania to rise to its potential, if we want our population to stay here and have opportunities for success, we must stay involved. Contact your legislatures with your ideas and follow up to see where the reform process is headed. More importantly, demand results.

In 2004, 18 of 218 state legislators had primary and general election opponents. In the November 2006 election 168 of the 228 seats available were competitive. This, along with the May turnover of 47 seats, is a clear indication that an energized electorate can and has made a difference in the members of our state government. My current total shows that there will be a change in one quarter of the state legislature when they meet in 2007 in Harrisburg. This is nearly 14 times the typical legislative turnover. This change is truly amazing.

Upcoming elections will ask the voters if judges should be retained and bring the remainder of the PA State Senate to face the voters. The legislative (and judicial) pay raise issue may not have the legs it had in the May primary and my not cross party lines, but it will still be a topic of Pennsylvania’s political discourse for some time to come. It will be an historical reminder of, We the People. Edmund Burk once said, “In all forms of government the people is the true legislator.” After the election this November, the people’s work will begin.

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