Friday, January 26, 2007

Flood the House with reform ideas

They asked for it. Let's give it to them.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives wants to clean up its act. Maybe the 203 members of the largest and most expensive legislature in the country finally got religion. Or maybe, it was the sight of 50 of its members being tossed out by voters or forced into retirement that finally got the rest of the legislators to wise up.

Whatever the motivation, the new Speaker of the House, Dennis M. O'Brien, has appointed a 24-member Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform consisting of 12 Democratic and 12 Republican legislators from across the state.

The commission held its first meeting last week, where one of the co-chairmen, Rep. Josh Shapiro, announced that "everything is one the table" when it comes to restructuring how the House conducts the people's business.

Shapiro, a second-term Democrat credited with recruiting Republican O'Brien to help overthrow longtime Republican Speaker John M. Perzel, said all the right things during the commission's first public session.

The commission will review a laundry list of reform initiatives and try to reach a "super-majority" among its members before taking the recommendations to the full House later this year, according to Shapiro.

All of the commission's meetings will be open to the public and press and all 24 members will have an opportunity to push their reform measures, Shapiro said.

And in perhaps the most revolutionary concept since the Legislature was founded, Shapiro said the people of Pennsylvania — that's you and me — will also have an opportunity to provide input to the commission.

It's time to let our elected representatives know that the people mean business. I've been talking about the people's revolution for the past two years, but some career politicians still think that the only people pushing reform are a few newspaper columnists and a handful of citizen activists.

The best way to send a message to the politicians is for tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters to e-mail suggestions for reforms to the commission.

All it takes is a few minutes on your computer, but the more individuals who send e-mails to Harrisburg, the more impact it will have on the Legislature.

In August 2005, The Mercury launched "Operation Giveback," a grassroots effort to persuade the Legislature to repeal the July 2005 legislative pay raise. We asked readers to sign letters demanding a repeal of the measure that gave lawmakers pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent.

We collected more than 10,000 letters and hand-delivered them to Harrisburg. Those letters were dropped on the desks of House and Senate leaders. People who were in Harrisburg at the time have told me that the letters went a long way in persuading lawmakers that the pay raise had to be repealed.

It's one thing for a small group of activists or newspaper columnists to complain about the way Harrisburg does business. But when tens of thousands of voters voice their opinion, the politicians listen.

Let's do the same thing now with the reform commission.

The e-mail address to send suggestions for changing the way our lawmakers conduct themselves is

Send one suggestion or several recommendations, but the key is to have as many Pennsylvania voters participate in the process. We have the numbers. We need to take back our state government from the political aristocracy.

Tim Potts, one of the activists who has been demanding more accountability in Harrisburg though the organization he co-founded, DemocracyRisingPA, has a few suggestions on how to approach the e-mail campaign:

* Be courteous. They're really listening this time.
* Be concise. They're going to have a lot on their plates.
* Be positive. Tell them what you want them to do in the future, not just what you don't like about the past.
* Be helpful. In the subject line of your e-mail, identify whether your idea is for a rule or a law. For example: "Rules – Perks" or "Laws – Open Records." It will help them sort ideas appropriately.

There's all sorts of suggestions for potential reforms. The big one is the need for a constitutional convention, primarily to give citizens the right for voter-driven Initiative, Referendum and Recall, but we might have to start with less ambitious reforms.

If you need some ideas, Potts lists all sorts of ways to improve our state government on his group's Web site,

They opened the floodgates. Let the deluge begin.

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