Tim Potts outlines his quest to make Pennsylvania best in nationBy Heather Stauffer Carlisle Sentinel, August 3, 2007On Thursday, Tim Potts led members of Carlisle Rotary on a flight of imagination.
Imagine, he said, a law that represents the worst thing the state government could do to your family, your business.
Then, with barely a pause, Potts moved from the realm of imagination to the realm of reality. That law, he said, could pass overnight.
"Many people think we began as a result of the legislative pay raise in 2005," said Potts, who was addressing the club in his role as a cofounder of Democracy Rising PA. But the truth, he said, is that the organization started a year earlier, in reaction to the July 4th passage of the state's slots gambling bill.
Before continuing with the story, Potts, a Carlisle resident who occupied high positions in the state Department of Education before he moved on to the Pennsylvania School Reform Network and then Democracy Rising PA, reminded the audience of a relevant portion of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
To protect citizens, he said, the constitution requires three things; That legislation be considered for at least three days in each chamber (PA House & PA Senate), that the legislation's original intent not be altered and that the legislation not be about more than one subject.
The slots gambling legislation started simply enough, Potts said, holding up the one-and-a-half page bill that spent more than the requisite time in both the house and the senate. But then, just before it was voted on July 4, those original pages were amended to 146.
"Not one single word of the original bill survived," Potts said, brandishing a bulky copy of the revised bill. Furthermore, he said, unlike the original, the new wording encompassed a medley of themes.
"It was a process that plainly violated the rights of residents of Pennsylvania," Potts said. But, he said, when the bill was challenged, Pennsylvania courts upheld the procedure by which it was enacted - so in 2005, the legislature used the same procedure to pass its now-infamous pay raise.
And it could do it again, on any subject, whenever it likes, he said.
"That's why we call it the dismantling of democracy," Potts said. "The constitution is supposed to prohibit this."
And that's why, he told the intent audience, Pennsylvania needs an organization like Democracy Rising PA. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has one goal, Potts said: To help restore the principles of democracy to Pennsylvania.
Voters can force change
After a quick litany of further bad news - that Pennsylvania's sunshine and lobbying control laws have been ranked among the worst in the nation - Potts turned optimistic again.
"It doesn't have to be this way," he said. All that is necessary, he said, is for citizens to start getting involved and getting democracy-friendly legislators into Harrisburg. Some good things have already happened, he said, pointing to 2005, when Russell Nigro became the first Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice ever to lose a retention vote.
As one of the leaders of the campaign against Nigro, Potts told the audience it doesn't necessarily take a lot of money to make a difference. When he tallied up what that campaign cost him, Potts said, it came to $32.16 - an amount that he said turned into 736,000 "no" votes.
"Incredible," he said.
Then he dished out more numbers. The only thing that stands between 12 and a half million people and the best state government in America is 129 people - the governor and a controlling majority in each chamber, he said.
"We have the forces of evil vastly outnumbered," Potts quipped, to laughter. But, he said, the current crop of public officials will not change their behavior until the citizens change theirs.
That said, Potts urged the audience to let it be known the principles of democracy matter to them and to throw their political support to people who have proved they feel the same way.
"It's up to us," he said in conclusion. "We can do it."
Depending on judgment
Afterward, Rotarian Tom Williams had a comment.
"As long as we voters elect people on what they can do for us, what reason do they have to pay attention to procedural things?" Williams asked. Potts agreed that he had a point, and then Williams raised an objection to the idea that democracy is no longer functioning in the Pennsylvania legislature.
"My representative lives here. He takes what we tell him and takes it to Harrisburg," Williams said. "We depend on these guys to use their independent judgment."
Yes, said Potts, but in cases like the slots bill, when the amendment was made at the last minute, representatives wouldn't even have had time to read the revisions. While he acknowledged Williams' point in theory, Potts said, in practice it often turns out very differently.
"Half of the time they're not voting for you," said Potts. "Half of the time they're voting for their leaders."