You don't know how much it pains me to write this but Ed Rendell is on to something.
For those who are new to this forum, I've had a love-hate relationship with Pennsylvania's governor. OK, mostly hate. I voted for Rendell in 2002 because he promised a "new Pennsylvania," but I quickly became disillusioned with Rendell when it became clear to me that his rhetoric doesn't match reality.
He promised to cut my taxes, but he raised them instead. He promised to improve our schools, but they've gotten worse. He promised to make Pennsylvania safer, but we're home to some of the most dangerous cities in the country. He promised to bring high-paying jobs and prosperity, but companies and jobs are fleeing the state. Even a Pennsylvania treasure like Hershey's is planning to build a candy factory in Mexico.
My report card on the first four years of the Rendell administration can be summed up in two of my columns: "The Worst Governor in the United States" and "33 Reasons Not to Re-Elect Ed Rendell."
But that's all in the past. While he hasn't delivered the property tax cuts he promised and he's managed to spend Pennsylvania into the poor house, Rendell has a plan to reform state government.
He announced the six-point initiative last week during a speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg. The reforms are intended to "help restore the public's trust" in Pennsylvania government, Rendell said.
In the area of open records, Rendell said the state should operate under the presumption that all government records are available to the public. That's what news organizations have been saying for years. Rendell wants the law changed to put the burden on government agencies to prove records should not be disclosed.
In the area of how best to select judges, Rendell wants to change the current system of electing judges to the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts in favor of merit selection. He would establish an Appellate Court Nominating Commission to recommend candidates for openings, and require the governor to nominate from the commission's list, with Senate confirmation.
In the area of campaign finance, Rendell wants to set a $5,000 limit on donations from individuals and political action committees for statewide offices and impose a $2,000 limit for donations in all other races, including the General Assembly. He would also restrict how much individuals, party committees and PACs can donate in every two-year campaign cycle.
Rendell also wants to close loopholes that let partnerships and "shell organizations" make donations "that skirt the law." Our elected officials are bought and sold by lobbyists and special interest groups. Money is the engine that drives this corrupt system.
Rendell's most dramatic changes would come to the embattled Pennsylvania Legislature. The governor wants to redraw legislative districts to prevent gerrymandering by incumbent politicians who create safe districts for themselves. Under Rendell's plan, a nine-member citizens' commission would draw new district lines.
The governor also wants to cut the size of the Legislature, currently the largest and most expensive full-time state legislature in the United States. Rendell recommends forming an 11-person commission to study the size of the legislature, and ask the commission to make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by Dec. 31, or six months after legislation is enacted.
Rendell also wants to impose term limits on legislators just like the one that prevents him from serving as governor for more than eight years. His plan would limit lifetime service in the state Senate or House to eight years, but it would allow someone to serve in one chamber after the term expires in the other chamber. Terms would be staggered so not all expire at the same time. This plan would eliminate the career politicians who go to Harrisburg to rot.
"Citizens will not rest until there is an end to perks, an end to control by private interests and an end to political rules that shut them out of the process," Rendell noted in announce his plan to gut the Legislature.
I'm aboard the Rendell Express. All of the governor's proposals make sense. Some of them require tinkering, but at least it's a starting point to fix a system that's broken.
There are a couple of big hurdles to overcome on the road to reform. Many of the changes would require changes to the state constitution. That process takes years and needs the cooperation of the Legislature. I wonder which incumbent lawmaker is going to be the first in line to give up his job.
I do have one tiny suggestion for the governor. Now that we're buddies, I can't think of anyone more qualified to help straighten out the mess in Harrisburg than me. I'm ready to serve on any or all of the citizens' commissions. So, governor, I'll keep my calendar open for you and sit by the phone waiting for your call.