CALLS FOR reforming our bloated, sleaze-plagued Legislature as it again faces a budget deadline with no signs of on-time passage naturally bring to mind the 1928 song "Making Whoopee."
So, with apologies to songstress Ella Fitzgerald (and more recently Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys") and lyricist Gus Kahn, here's what's happening:
Another budget, another June;
Another deficit up to the moon;
Another season, another reason
For doin' nothin.'
I say (sing) this because when it comes to reform the pattern's the same: public outrage over pension or pay grabs, scandals or late budgets, followed by demands for institutional change.
Suggested reforms range from term limits or cutting the size/cost of the largest full-time Legislature in America to smaller stuff such as making all lawmakers share the cost of their health-care coverage (like virtually every other taxpayer) or file receipts for expenses (like virtually every other working person).
But nothing happens on institutional issues because only lawmakers can change their institution.
Then, before you know it, there's another budget crisis and attention shifts from fundamental fixes inside the institution to its only annually required task, passing a balanced budget by the end of the fiscal year, June 30 - a task it's failed for seven straight years.
And after each failure come the cries: VOTE THEM ALL OUT!
But then there's an election, such as the recent primary, and they all get voted back in. The one exception this year was as incumbent up in the Lehigh Valley, Republican Karen Beyer.
Not sure why she lost. Maybe she declared the Demon Drop at Dorney Park unsafe.
But Beyer's defeat was made up for by victories by incumbents facing corruption charges. Philly Republican John Perzel and Greene County Democrat Bill DeWeese won contested primaries; Pittsburgh Republican Sen. Jane Orie had no opposition. No demon drops in those districts.
Incumbents who survive primaries (that would be almost all, almost all the time) go on to win general elections because the Legislature shapes most districts to be virtually impervious to party change.
Those wishing to remain in the Legislature do so; and the culture, cost, size and, uh, performance continue as before.
Keep this cycle in mind when candidates say they'll change things.
Take Democratic Guv-wannabe Dan Onorato. This week, he stood in the Capitol Rotunda, said that he knows what needs to be done and how to do it; said that if elected he'd cut the Legislature's cost, get term limits, eliminate pet-project funding, make lawmakers put in receipts for expenses, limit campaign contributions and end gerrymandering.
When pressed on how he'd do what no one else has been able to do, he said that "the world's changed," that he's the only candidate who ran a government and that he reformed Allegheny County as its executive by consolidating some elected offices and 9-1-1 call centers.
What he didn't say is that reforms in his county did not require incumbents to vote against their interests. What he didn't say is that Ed Rendell ran a government for eight years prior to coming to Harrisburg and never got close to making institutional changes, despite multiple calls for same. What he didn't say is that governors are limited in what they can get another branch of government to do.
I'm not picking on Onorato. His GOP opponent, Tom Corbett, also claims that he'd cut costs, eliminate lawmakers' pet projects, force filing of receipts for expenses, cut large legislative discretionary funds and make all lawmakers share the cost of their Cadillac health-care plans.
But candidates say a lot of things. When the next governor faces another deficit and calls for legislative reforms, he'll be seeking votes on a budget while asking leaders to vote against their long-held power and perks.
Lawmakers can change the Legislature. Governors alone and candidates for governor cannot. Just ask Ed. So until voters elect legislative candidates who promise institutional change, expect another season, another reason for once again doin' nothing.
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