I have a suggestion for a new state motto for Pennsylvania: "Better than nothing."
A coalition of reform groups gathered on the steps of the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg Tuesday to announce its report card for the governor and Legislature on a variety of reform issues.
Here's how it went: On election reform — F. On lame duck sessions — F. On redistricting — F. On legislative voting records — F. On campaign financing — F. On ballot access — F. You get the picture.
Gov. Ed Rendell and most of the incumbents in Harrisburg still don't get it. Everyone is calling themselves “reformers” these days, but talk is cheap. The incumbent politicians are telling voters what they want to hear to fool them into re-electing the usual suspects on Nov. 7. Then, it's back to business as usual.
The only way things will change in Harrisburg is for Rendell and most of the incumbent legislators on the ballot to lose. There are no Republicans or Democrats on the ballot this year. It's the status quo party versus citizen soldiers who want to change the system. It's a battle between the political aristocracy and the people.
So far this year, 31 incumbents have decided to retire rather than face the voters. Another 17 legislators, including the top two Republican leaders in the state Senate, were defeated in the May primary. That means up to 48 reformers will be going to Harrisburg next year. That may not be enough. They need reinforcements. More incumbents have to pay the price on Election Day for the pay raise vote and their overall lack of accomplishment in Harrisburg.
Back to the reform coalition for a minute. The group gave the governor and Legislature failing grades in every reform category except one, the recently enacted lobbyist disclosure bill that awaits Gov. Ed Rendell's signature. Until the bill is signed, Pennsylvania has the distinction of being the only state in the nation without rules to regulate lobbyists, who spend tens of millions of dollars every year to influence politicians and the laws they pass.
Barry Kauffman of Common Cause/PA gave the Legislature a “B minus” for the bill, but when pressed by reporters to justify such a high grade for what is widely seen as weak legislation, Kauffman said it was “better than nothing.”
Better than nothing. Where have we heard these words before?
In televised debates with Republican challenger Lynn Swann, Rendell said his attempt at tax reform (the rebates for low-income seniors) was “better than nothing.”
That seems to be the favorite phrase of incumbent politicians as we head to Nov. 7. It may not be property tax reform, but it's better than nothing. It may not really curb abuses by lobbyists and greedy politicians, but it's better than nothing.
Why should Pennsylvania always have to settle for less? Why can't we have real reform? Why do we have to tolerate so much mediocrity in our politicians?
It's not that we don't pay them well. Even after the July 2005 pay raise was repealed, Pennsylvania legislators are still the second highest paid in the nation. (And on Dec. 1, they will get a cost-of-living increase of at least 3.5 percent, raising the starting salary for a Pennsylvania legislator to around $74,000 a year. The pay raise is automatic unless the legislators vote not to accept it. Don’t hold your breath.)
The “better than nothing” attitude has also engulfed the race for governor and Pennsylvania senator. The state's liberal newspapers are falling all over themselves to endorse Democrats Ed Rendell and Bob Casey, but none of them have made a convincing case that either man is actually a good candidate for the office they're seeking. Rendell is “better than nothing” as governor. Casey is “better than nothing” as senator.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, one of the state's largest newspapers and one of the few conservative voices in Pennsylvania, may have gotten it right. In an endorsement editorial published Sunday, the newspaper said it cannot endorse either Rendell or Swann for governor. Neither man is up to the job, according to the newspaper.
Rendell has failed on numerous fronts during his first four years and doesn't deserve another term, the newspaper argues. Swann is faulted because too many of his campaign officials were also involved with the architects of the July 2005 pay raise, the newspaper contends.
On a lighter note, the state reform coalition couldn't resist using the occasion of Halloween to announce its list of Top 10 Reform Tricks or Treats. OK, it was all tricks. Ten politicians were singled out for various shenanigans in 2006.
At the top of the list is none other than Gov. Rendell, who was awarded the title of “Biggest Phony Reformer.” Rendell was also described by the reform group as a “political acrobat” and an expert at “political juggling.” Way to go, Ed.
Catch me on the radio
I will be a guest on the Lowman Henry Show this Saturday to discuss the upcoming election. The program is broadcast live from 8 to 10 a.m. on WHYL-AM 960 Carlisle and WCDL-AM 1440 Scranton. You can also listen to live streaming audio of the Lowman Henry Show at www.whylradio.com. And you can download a recording of the broadcast to your computer from The Lincoln Institute’s Web site at www.lincolninstitute.org
I'll be analyzing the results of the election on the Nick Lawrence Show on WPAZ 1370 AM Pottstown on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 4 p.m. You can also listen to live streaming audio of the Nick Lawrence Show at www.1370wpaz.com.