Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PA Cleansweep asks: Is Reform Dead?

PACleanSweep launches new poll to find out

on the inside, perhaps…

Brad Bumsted of the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review thinks so - at least as far as any action inside the halls of our state Capitol. Bumsted made the proclamation in a recent column titled "Remember in November of '08." He joins fellow astute capitol observer John Baer of the Philadelphia Daily News, who preceded him with a column titled "'Race to Reform' sputtering to Nowheresvillle."

Both writers provide great commentary on what's happened to reform on the inside, despite the outstanding efforts of reform-minded voters who replaced 25 percent of the General Assembly in 2006.

Where exactly are the voices of those freshmen that provided the citizens of our fair Commonwealth with so much hope last year? Have they been completely shut down by heavy-handed legislative leaders - or just sucked into the Harrisburg culture of self- interest, arrogance and greed?

You can read the excellent articles by Bumsted and Baer by clicking the links below.

"Remember in November of '08" by Brad Bumsted

"'Race to Reform' sputtering to Nowheresvillle" by John Baer

meanwhile, on the outside...

Citizens are still grousing about the need for real change despite the deaf ears their complaints fall on in Harrisburg. What will it take to actually get it? Was the PACleanSweep mantra of 'voting them all out' not so far off the mark after all? It certainly appears that way.

In 2005, we opposed the retention of Supreme Court Justices Sandra Shultz Newman and Russell Nigro. The results of that election helped grow the reform movement by leaps and bounds. While we were highly ridiculed by the establishment and the lawyer community for doing so, most people have come around to accept that it was the right thing to do, as the courts have paved the way for legislative shenanigans such as the pay raise and 2004's slots bill.

Do Pennsylvanians need to take another similar step toward reform this November when a whopping 68 judges across the state will be up for retention? We'd like you to tell us what you think.

Please take a minute or two to participate in the PACleanSweep Judicial Retention poll by clicking the link below. The results of the survey will be used to formulate our plan of attack for the upcoming months. Remember, this is YOUR Commonwealth and only YOU can create change. Don't wait around for others to do it for you - especially those on the inside who are comfortable with the status quo.

We ask that you forward this message to as many concerned Pennsylvanians as possible.

Vote in the PACleanSweep Judicial Retention Poll


Anonymous said...

John Baer | 'Race to Reform' sputtering to Nowheresvillle
NOW AN UPDATE on the '07 "Race to Reform."

This is an occasional check on efforts to change the politics of Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the infamous '05 pay grab.

This year, said pols and activists alike, the state would race to reform and make government more responsive, efficient and accountable.

Let's see.

Last week, the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity released a survey on state laws governing financial disclosure by public officials. Pennsylvania got an "F."

You can't be surprised.

The Legislature just broke until mid-September after blowing yet another annual budget deadline, "working" 17 days into the new fiscal year and costing additional unnecessary expense in per diems, the money that members get on top of salary if they actually go to work.

The range is $129 to $148 a day; no receipts are necessary.

If the 253 members' per diems average $138, times 17, you just saw an extra $600,000 go down the drain.

Oh, and Gov. Ed says he's paying 24,000 "nonessential" workers he laid off for one day during the budget impasse, even though, let's assume, they did no work. That's $3.5 million.

Hope you don't mind how they're spending your money.

(By the way, as I've written before, this annual late-budget/crisis nonsense ends the instant we have a law saying no lawmaker, staffer or administration official gets pay or perk without a budget in place and nobody gets reimbursed for any day past the deadline. Think they'll enact that?)

America's largest full-time legislature with 3,000 staff, second only to New York (which has 130 more) is an affront to efficiency.

The National Conference of State Legislatures data says 22 states have fewer permanent legislative staff than Pennsylvania has lawmakers.

Why does the sixth-largest state need the largest legislature? Why does that legislature need so many staffers?

Well, because a political culture left unattended will, like fungus, continue to grow.

As to reform?

"I think people feel much better about state government," House Speaker Denny O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, tells me.

He would. It's an inside view.

He notes the changes stripping some power from leaders and adding a 24-hour rule allowing members to read bills before voting on them.

What a novel idea.

"It might be painful. We had 38 members, for example, speak on the transportation bill. But it worked. And if things take a little longer, that's the price of democracy," O'Brien says.

Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, co-chairman of the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform, also says empowering rank-and-file members was the biggest change implemented this year.

"It worked well," he says, "and because of it the public knew more about the process this time."

But the big stuff?

"Terrible," says Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA, one of several grass-roots groups pushing reforms. "There's just no other word for it."

Potts says that other than a lobbyist-regulation law (we're the last state to adopt one), there's little to assuage voters angered by the pay raise and the culture that bred it.

"The mood of the electorate is still negative," says Potts, "and it won't take much to remind them."

A few things that never would occur pre-pay raise (easier disclosure of expenses, ending late-night sessions, ending secret staff bonuses and doing away with $650-a-month car leases) were adopted.

And the Senate stopped use of taxpayer-financed TV and radio "public-service announcements" (the House did not) and proposed coughing up some of the $215 million legislative reserve, aka slush fund.

But that never happened.

Neither did a single upgrade to the basic political infrastructure despite lots of rhetoric from the governor and others.

Campaign-finance reform, an open-records law, merit selection of judges, an end to gerrymandering and lame-duck legislative sessions, a reduction in the size of the legislature and adoption of term limits (even if only for committee chairmen) remain tasks untouched.

So Pennsylvania remains a bastion of the politics of its past.

Its legislature remains a costly bloated institution better at putting issues off than delivering on-time solutions.

And the '07 "Race to Reform" - that started with promise and possibility - idles in neutral and threatens to stall.

Anonymous said...

Remember in November of '08

By Brad Bumsted
Sunday, July 29, 2007


It's official. The "reform movement" in the Pennsylvania Legislature is dead.

Gene Stilp, the litigious Harrisburg activist who stirred the pot against the 2005 pay hike, confirms it.

"Many legislators had asked me a number of months ago to give the reform process time to work. I did. It didn't. The budget is over. Reform never happened," Stilp wrote recently in a letter imploring lawmakers not to spend state tax money attending two summer junkets: the Council of State Governments conference in Quebec on Aug. 12 and the National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston on Aug. 5.

story continues below

If you want to go, spend your own money, Stilp told legislators.

The 2005 pay-jacking sparked a taxpayer rebellion and a reform movement that began in earnest last January. "Openness" and "transparency" were the buzzwords heard most often. But substantive reform proved elusive.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Ed Rendell made a mockery of the concept of open government.

The most fundamental reform -- strengthening the state's pathetic open-records law and applying it for the first time to the General Assembly -- was brushed off the agenda by lawmakers and Rendell during the mad scramble before summer recess on July 16.

One secret meeting after another was their modus operandi.

There was never a single public hearing on the massive transportation bill that will reshape spending on roads, bridges and transit for decades. Legislative leaders carved a $27.5 billion budget in secret meetings in the final days of a 16-day impasse.

So-called "off the floor" committee meetings -- called at a moment's notice from the Senate floor -- kept the public from knowing virtually anything in advance on the details of a slots-funded bill that provides $225 million over 30 years for a new Penguins arena.

What compounded the hypocrisy was the refusal of the four caucuses in the House and Senate to account for how they spent $360 million they'd been allocated in the budget, according to the AP.

"Tick. Tick. Tick," the Web page of Democracy Rising PA noted, counting the time elapsed since the pay raise. "Reform laws enacted: one. Best-in-America laws enacted: zero."

That one law -- approved in 2006 -- was the long-sought-after lobbyist disclosure reform measure, which effectively maintained the status quo in Pennsylvania and broke little new ground.

Was there some reform? Around the edges, yes. The middle-of-the night voting was, at least, put on hold through new rules. The House and Senate by rule ended their voting at 11 p.m. But that can change in a heartbeat.

In the House, the Speaker's Reform Commission accomplished very little beyond that despite the efforts of some well-intentioned people.

In the Senate, there were sporadic flashes of reform -- such as the decision to make state laws available online for the first time. And in the fall, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, says open-records-law reform will be his top priority.

The biggest disappointment was the return to the pay-raise mentality -- the public be damned approach of legislative leaders and the governor -- and the blatant failure of rank-and-file members to stand up to their leaders and demand openness.

The largest freshman class in years -- elected on reform agendas -- should have revolted. The senior members who continue to put up with this nonsense should resign.

The leaders and the governor should apologize to the public for doing little to reform state government and for conducting your business out of the public's view.

Brad Bumsted is a state Capitol reporter for the Trib.

Anonymous said...


State constitution shields staff bonuses from suit, court says

The speech and debate clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution protects the state Legislature from having the judiciary rule on the award of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bonuses for staffers, Commonwealth Court ruled today.

Posted by Reggie Sheffield
The Patriot-News
July 31, 2007 18:04PM

House Majority Leader H. Wil­liam DeWeese and other legislative leaders filed formal legal objections to a court challenge, filed by political activist Gene Stilp, over the taxpayer-funded bonuses paid to Gener­al Assembly employees in 2005 and 2006.

"We are pleased that the Commonwealth Court agreed with our position. The com­pensation paid to employees of the House Democratic Caucus has always been based on offi­cial work, not political activi­ty," DeWeese spokesman Tom Andrews said in a prepared statement.

"Moreover, this Caucus is committed to openness and transparency and, for that rea­son, Majority Leader Bill De­Weese has discontinued all bonus programs and publicly released information regarding past bonuses," the statement continued.

Stilp claimed that certain taxpayer funds were improper­ly channeled to election campaigns "through a system of awarding bonuses to certain staff members of the legislature who gave donations to campaigns," the decision noted.

"I am going to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Pennsyl­vania because I feel the taxpay­ers' money was used illegally for political activities," Stilp said this afternoon.

"I'm also going to urge the attorney general to get off the stick and start doing some­thing. It's been six months since he saw the information," Stilp said.

A state grand jury convened this year in Pittsburgh continues to probe the issue of staffer bonuses.

"I can confirm that our in­vestigation is active and ongo­ing," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Attorney Gen­eral Tom Corbett.

"We don't report to Mr. Stilp or anyone else on the progress of our investigations," Harley added.

Stilp has also appealed a Commonwealth Court decision that threw out a legal chal­lenge Stilp, the proponent of the legislative pay raise revolt, made to the ability of part-time district attorneys to work full time, saying he lacked legal standing in the issue.

Senior Judge James R. Kelley concurred and dissented in a separate opinion, saying the speech and debate clause should not act as an automatic bar where, as Stilp has argued, the legislature's actions violat­ed Article 3 of the state consti­tution, which requires it to en­act legislation prior to the award of any monies.