Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

John Baer: Real reform lie dying as Legislators strangle hopes

AS STATE lawmakers rattle around the Capitol trying (again) to pass a budget on time, or trying (again) to pass a statewide smoking ban, I'm reminded (again) of the need for reforms - and how unlikely they are to happen.

AS STATE lawmakers rattle around the Capitol trying (again) to pass a budget on time, or trying (again) to pass a statewide smoking ban, I'm reminded (again) of the need for reforms - and how unlikely they are to happen.

Too much of the too-costly Legislature lives in entrenched self-interest.

I come to this after years of observation, after watching the work of Speaker Denny O'Brien's reform commission and after recent talks with a few who've sought broad, substantive change.

Suffice it to say they were not successful.

The "reform-minded" Legislature, three-quarters through its two-year term, with 55 freshmen in the aftermath of voter anger over the noxious '05 pay grab, hasn't exactly brought revolution.

There were improvements: cuts in perks such as fat car leases, opening public records to the public, reducing some secrecy in passing bills and ending the onus as America's only state House without a lobbying law.

But these merely bring Pennsylvania a few of the basics of a decent democracy. Efforts at

real reform lie dying.

Take changing how legislative districts get drawn.

It's done once a decade, controlled by legislative leaders with blatant incumbent and partisan protection. Reformers want it out of the hands of lawmakers, given to a nonpartisan body.


The League of Women Voters says no state but Georgia is as badly gerrymandered as Pennsylvania.

And the results are predictable.

This year, 100 of 228 seats on the ballot (the entire 203-member House and half of the 50-member Senate) faced no opposition in the April primary and have no opposition in November.

Monroe County (population 139,000) is so badly chopped up that it's represented by six senators; Philly (population 1.5 million) has seven.

And who can forget Speaker Emeritus John Perzel winning re-election in 2000 by 92 votes, then changing his district into the shape of a Rorschach inkblot to cut out areas that backed his opponent?

Legislators controlling redistricting are like alcoholics tending bar.

But since "leaders" such as Bill DeWeese - and before him Perzel and others - run the show; since longtime incumbents such as Babette Josephs and Tony Williams can stop legislation at committee levels (as both did recently on redistricting), our political alcoholics are served.

Then they hide behind the catchall that their constituents never talk to them about wanting reforms, as if constituent desires (for health care, lower gas prices, sensible gun laws, better schools) drive the agenda.

It is precisely because redistricting reform offers a chance for a fairer, more-competitive representative system (thereby threatening incumbents) that those in power make certain it goes nowhere.

Josephs, whose House committee has the issue, says, "I am very committed to reform," but when it comes to redistricting she adds: "This is a political process. I don't believe you can turn it over to anybody."

So a nonpartisan group following the dictates of the state constitution that districts be "compact and contiguous" is no more than a good idea.

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Bethlehem, a sponsor of redistricting reform, says: "It's very difficult to get a reform like this passed because it's hard to get leaders to bring it up. . . . I'm very disappointed."

So, too, are those who push for campaign-finance reform or term limits, reducing the size of the Legislature or cutting into its shameful $210 million slush fund, a pile of your money hoarded by leaders, used for whatever they want.

O'Brien's commission tried.

Reps. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery County, and David Steil, R-Bucks County, commission co-chairs, sought to return slush funds to the state treasury and reduce the cost of running the Legislature.

No dice.

Shapiro says he's still pursuing such efforts but isn't optimistic.

Steil, who's leaving the Legislature after 16 years, tells me the real problem is that there are "less than 40 real reform votes."

This makes the late H.L. Mencken sound about right: "I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time."

Send e-mail to

For recent columns, go to