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Our wish for 2019: Challenge state, city lawmakers | Editorial

As we look ahead to 2019, there is one big change that, if successful, would carry significant impact in everyone’s lives: Reform and challenge our lawmaking bodies.

City Council President Darrell Clarke (left) greets Mayor James Kenney.
City Council President Darrell Clarke (left) greets Mayor James Kenney.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The city and the region have a daunting and exhausting to-do list for the new year. As usual, many of the items — gun violence, poverty, education — show up on the list year after year.

But as we look ahead to 2019, there is one big change that, if successful, would carry significant impact in everyone’s lives.

Reform and challenge our lawmaking bodies.

We just witnessed change at the federal level, with a record number of women elected to Congress, including four in Pennsylvania — which is four more than the last session. Congress is still far away from equity, but this new influx is serious enough to have impact — especially in key areas of health care and reproductive rights.

At the state level, there has been no change in the legislature essentially for decades, and this body cries out for serious reform. Our state legislature is big, expensive, and known for how little it actually gets done. With 47 session days in 2018, it’s little wonder.

The fundamental structure invites entrenchment; generous salaries, and benefits and little accountability, with leadership demanding lockstep from members. But any reform, like the size of the legislature or calling for a constitutional convention, has to come from the body itself. That’s both ludicrous and unlikely. Even the new members ushered in following a 2007 “Bonusgate” scandal were no match for those fighting for the status quo.

Meanwhile, 14 members have been convicted over the last seven years for bribery, corruption fraud, or other charges. One, State Sen. Robert Mellow, who served time on federal corruption charges, had his $245,000 per year pension restored last year.

Some citizen groups, like Fair Districts PA, organized around the recent redistricting battle. There needs to be a similar citizen-driven effort for larger reforms. Elections alone aren’t enough.

Philadelphia will hold a primary election in May, where the most meaningful changes are likely to result from the free-for-all brawl expected in City Council campaigns. As a recent Inquirer “Philly Clout” report maintained, the number could exceed the all-time 1979 high of 101 candidates .

Lots of candidates is always a good sign, although it can make for a confusing and chaotic campaign season. But from all those voices are likely to emerge new perspectives on the issues facing the city, and the recognition that it’s a far different city now than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Philadelphia has new pockets of prosperity and growth, but in too many parts of the city, poverty maintains a mean grip. That’s a problem that needs wide-ranging solutions that rarely come out of district Council fiefdoms created based on a relatively small number of voters in each district.

The good news is that the composition of Council has changed since 2011, when Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative reported that it was one of the longest-serving legislative bodies, averaging 15.5 years' tenure per member. That has since been reduced to 10. Still, term limits should be on the table. City Council does reflect the city’s diversity in many categories – except age. It’s time for an infusion of youth and new energy.