One of the most troubling numbers heard when the topic of the Pennsylvania Legislature comes up is that 90 percent of incumbent legislators are re-elected.
That number certainly does not reflect the job approval ratings of the Legislature. One recent survey found that two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters think the Legislature is not doing a good job. But the same people are sent back to Harrisburg year after year.
That might change in 2006. At least 25 new legislators will go to Harrisburg this year because that’s how many incumbents won’t be on the ballot in the May 16 and Nov. 7 elections. Twenty-one members of the House have announced their retirement so far. Another House member was recently elected Philadelphia City Controller. Three state Senators are planning to retire. The death of Chester County Sen. Robert J. Thompson on Saturday will open a fourth seat in the Senate.
And there’s still time for incumbents to bow out. Candidates have three weeks to circulate nominating petitions for the primary election, starting Feb. 14. The deadline to submit petitions is March 7. More incumbents will probably decide over the next few weeks not to face the voters in 2006.
One event that may hasten the retirement of incumbents is Monday’s announcement by Operation Clean Sweep that 81 reform candidates will challenge incumbents. The 81 are part of a group of 140 candidates recruited by Operation Clean Sweep, a non-partisan group that has called for the ouster of all 253 members of the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell. A full list of candidates running under the Clean Sweep banner can be found on the group’s Web site, www.pacleansweep.com
The reason for the sudden interest in state politics is the July 7, 2005, vote by the House and Senate to give its members pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent. That vote, taken at 2 a.m. on the last day of the session before the Legislature broke for a two-month vacation, still riles many voters. The decision by more than 150 legislators to take the pay raise early — a move that contradicts the state Constitution — left a bad taste in the mouth of voters.
Months of public outcry and the ouster of a sitting Supreme Court justice last Nov. 8, led to the repeal of the pay raise, although at least 75 legislators have refused to give back the money they collected last summer as unvouchered expenses.
The anger over the pay raise fueled the formation of groups like Operation Clean Sweep and prompted many Pennsylvania residents to seek public office for the first time. That’s a good thing. Democracy works best when voters have a choice.
Voters should not automatically support challengers without looking at their experience and their platform. While the majority of incumbent legislators voted for the pay raise, some did not. They should not be lumped together with the lawmakers who pushed through the indefensible pay raise or took the money as unvouchered expenses.
Some legislators have been in Harrisburg too long and have lost touch with their constituents back home. The leadership in Harrisburg is more interested in protecting its influence and returning incumbents who follow the party line than being responsive to the needs of ordinary Pennsylvanians. The lack of progress on property tax relief is a perfect example of this.
There are incumbent legislators who deserve re-election, and they shouldn't fear the voters if they've done their job. PaCleanSweep should be commended for its grassroots effort to recruit fresh faces.
Giving voters a choice when they enter the voting booth is an important step in restoring democracy in Pennsylvania government. Incumbents must be held accountable to the people they are elected to serve.
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at firstname.lastname@example.org