Twenty-three citizens from all walks of life have scrutinized Pennsylvania's legislature for the past two years, and on Monday they reached a conclusion: Harrisburg is rotten to the core.
Only a statewide constitutional convention can stop the corruption and waste that party leaders have built into the system.
These citizens were called for grand jury service in March 2008. They included mechanics, clerks, factory workers, a bus driver, a chemical engineer, a used-car salesperson, and retirees.
They gathered at least one week each month, hearing testimony from witnesses in a broad corruption probe of the legislature. The grand jury has indicted 25 defendants, and several have been convicted of diverting public money illegally for political purposes.
But the grand jurors were so appalled at the corruption in Harrisburg that they took the unusual step of issuing a 35-page report detailing the lawmakers' abuse. (The document can be viewed at www.philly.com/bonusgate.)
There are so many examples of wasted taxpayer dollars, it's hard to choose a favorite. For example, House Republicans and House Democrats have their own print shops, with separate staffs and equipment, costing taxpayers millions of dollars per year.
All four caucuses — House and Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans — have separate information technology departments. Witnesses couldn't explain the need for such duplication, but the grand jury did — it's a good place to hide illegal campaign spending.
The legislature employs dozens of aides whose sole job is to help constituents fill out PennDot forms, such as applications for vehicle registration. Most people can figure out this simple task or visit a PennDot office for help, and the grand jury found that much of this "constituent service" is actually devoted to businesses, including car dealerships, bakeries, and paving companies.
There's much more — patronage hiring; part-time employees earning six-figure salaries for no apparent reason. The report makes clear that wasting tax money is an equal-opportunity sport in Harrisburg. Democrats and Republicans waste with equal zeal.
The grand jury has issued a call to action. It recommends moving to a part-time legislature, eliminating taxpayer-funded party caucuses, and cutting legislative staff from the current 2,805.
Most of these abuses have been reported in the media for years. But this report reinforces the certainty that the legislature is incapable of reforming itself. Voters occasionally vote in reformers, but the new legislators either get co-opted by party leaders or get disillusioned and quit.
A constitutional convention is the best hope for significant change in Harrisburg. One catch, though — the legislature needs to approve the needed changes.