Monday, November 30, 2009

Columnist: PA needs constitutional convention

Pennsylvania needs a new constitution

By Lowman S. Henry

The time has come for a state constitutional convention.

It has become abundantly clear that not only is state government broken and dysfunctional, but that it is impossible for the current governmental structure to fix itself so that it can begin to address the many problems afflicting the commonwealth.

We have, of course, known this for many years. The now infamous legislative pay raise and resulting mass exodus of sitting legislators gave rise to calls for reform from virtually every quarter. The infusion of new blood under the Capitol dome generated much reform talk along with optimism that significant change would actually occur. News conferences were held, a few bills were introduced, and a couple of minor procedural changes were made.

But in the end real reform stalled and the legislature settled back into business as usual.

The possibility of reform might have ended there were it not for Attorney General Tom Corbett. The uproar resulting from the ill-fated pay raise shone a light on a number of shady legislative practices that otherwise had flourished like mushrooms in the darkened bowels of the capitol. It was enough to catch the attorney general's attention.

Corbett's investigation uncovered a systemic practice of allowing legislative staffers to leave the state payroll, work on campaigns, return to their jobs, and then receive bonuses to make up the lost income. It amounted to a taxpayer funded subsidy to political campaigns. The scandal, dubbed Bonusgate, eventually ensnared a sitting legislator, a former legislator and a number of Democratic staffers. Several have now copped plea bargains and the others will soon go to trial.

Calls for reform again were raised, but with attention focused on the Presidential race Bonusgate receded in the state's collective political consciousness.

But now Attorney General Corbett has initiated a second round of indictments. This time the wrong-doing was on the Republican side of the aisle. Now known as the Capitol Corruption Scandal, former House Speaker John Perzel and ten others stand accused of bilking taxpayers of $10 million to fund an elaborate computer system used allegedly for political purposes.

And the attorney general says there is more to come.

The corruption has infected both political parties. Corrupt practices by Republicans and Democrats alike have been revealed to be both systemic and pervasive. Worse, as the latest round of indictments showed, those involved and their minions were more than willing to destroy evidence and otherwise obstruct justice in an effort to cover up misdeeds.

It is not fair to paint everyone serving or working in state government with one broad brush. There are still good people in state government trying to do the right thing. But as we have seen even a major influx of new legislators has failed to generate meaningful reform. And, there are those now sitting in the General Assembly who benefitted —some knowingly and some unknowingly — by the illegal acts of now-indicted leadership and staff.

Overlay all of this with the state's on-going budget fiasco. Not only was the current state budget passed 101 days late, but it still is not completed. As we enter the sixth month of the fiscal year key legislation relative to revenue from expanded table gaming has not been passed. Neither has critical funding been approved for the state's universities.

The focus on the budget ground to a halt work on other pressing issues — including the many reform initiatives that were introduced earlier in this session. And don't look for much to happen anytime soon. The legislature recently returned from the month long recess to it needed to recover from the budget battle. Factor out Thanksgiving recess and Christmas recess and only a few legislative days remain this year. At that point, the General Assembly will reach the half way mark of the current session.

Massive corruption, institutional gridlock, greed, and pervasive arrogance all add up to a system that has failed we the people of Penn's Woods. Recent history has shown the system is incapable of reforming itself. That leaves us with but one option —a constitutional convention.

As we approach the 2010 elections, every citizen of Pennsylvania should demand of their candidates for governor, state senator and state representative that they will actively support and vote for the convening of a constitutional convention. Because only a constitutional convention, with no incumbent legislators sitting as delegates, can free us from the shackles of a state government that is incapable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Lowman S. Henry is director and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, a Harrisburg-based non-profit, educational foundation, and host of the American Radio Journal.

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