It's time for a Pa. constitutional convention - seriously | John Baer
Fixing the state's dysfunctional government requires changing some of the fundamentals. A constitutional convention can make that happen.
Two Republican lawmakers last week formally launched an effort to create a constitutional convention to fix, in their words, "our broken state government" because "Pennsylvanians deserve better."
Can I get an amen?
Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair) and Rep. Stephen Bloom (R., Cumberland) want citizens to have direct say in making government more efficient — and just maybe pull Pennsylvania off the list of America's worst-run states.
Imagine 150 citizen delegates who are not state politicians meeting with 13 delegates who are politicians (a pretty good citizen balance) to come up with improvements to all three branches of government.
Then voters — many of whom wonder, in frustration, What can we do? — can weigh in on statewide ballot questions to reshape the government for which they pay.
Imagine the power to cut the size of the largest (arguably lousiest) full-time legislature, make it part time; curtail pay, pensions and perks; put in term limits; stop state spending (including for lawmakers and their expenses) in the absence of a budget; repair reapportionment; get fairer school funding; get merit selection of state judges; and jettison the office of lieutenant governor, a post with possibly the nation's worst cost-benefit ratio.
All this and more could streamline government, cut costs, and improve politics.
And, it could start to restore faith and trust at a time faith and trust is down the rusted drain of a political system whose infrastructure has too long been ignored.
It's been 50 years since the last constitutional convention. It's time for another one.
Eichelberger and Bloom are pushing bills in the Senate and House with bipartisan co-sponsorship to put a question on a statewide ballot as soon as next spring asking voters whether they favor a convention.
If voters approve, as they should, the next step is electing 150 citizens – three from each of the 50 Senate districts – to be joined by 13 legislative leaders for a convention lasting no longer than four months.
Citizen delegates must be at least 21 years old, state residents for at least four years, and registered voters for at least a year in the Senate district from which they run.
No member of Congress or the state legislature, no judge, and no statewide elected official can be a citizen delegate.
Whatever the convention agrees to goes to ballot questions, and voters get to pick what they like.
"The legislature has proven unable or unwilling to address systemic problems," Bloom tells me. "In a constitutional convention, citizens are the ones who get to put forth ideas."
But can convention legislation pass?
Eichelberger says, "I think so. I really do. … I think we'll see a fair amount of public pressure on this, particularly because of our budget situation."
Senate spokesmen say Senate President Joe Scarnati and Majority Leader Jake Corman are supportive. House leaders are described as "open" to the idea. Gov. Wolf's spokesman says the governor, who has pushed reforms, will "look at" specifics once they're in final form.
So, nobody is saying "no."
There's even a provision for public contributions to help defray start-up costs of $200,000 (delegates are unpaid except for expenses), and at least one citizen group already is offering financial support, Eichelberger said, though he declined to identify the group.
I, of course, am suspect. I'm wary of pre-election-year hype suggesting any broad reforms and weary of vague commitments from state leaders, who support reforms then never take a lead.
However, citizen interest in government and politics, fueled by last year's presidential election and ginned up by this year's budget mess, seems more heightened than normal.
So, I see opportunity. If citizens push legislative leaders and their own representatives (the legislature's website — legis.state.pa.us — has contact info) to vote for a constitutional convention, it's possible citizens can push Pennsylvania to a better place.
There's no question it needs such a push. There's no way it comes without a convention.