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John Baer: Pennsylvania lawmakers have little incentive to reform

THE RECENT grand-jury report on the Legislature calls for the same systemic changes that reform advocates, editorial writers, this column and others endorsed for years; it adds nothing and brings no authority to implement recommendations.

THE RECENT grand-jury report on the Legislature calls for the same systemic changes that reform advocates, editorial writers, this column and others endorsed for years; it adds nothing and brings no authority to implement recommendations.

It is another pile of paper, a 34-page reminder of the futility faced by those seeking to pull Pennsylvania into the 21st century.

It calls for, among other things, creating a part-time Legislature with term limits and reduced staff, ending leadership slush funds and stopping the inane practice of paying lawmakers' expenses without receipts - all good ideas.

But a grand jury can do none of this; only the Legislature can. And only voters can install legislators willing to vote for change.

Still, there's value in airing these issues, and it's fun to see reaction from incumbents like Montgomery County Democratic Sen. Daylin Leach, a former House member, who just penned an anti-report op-ed piece in the Daily News.

I take it this is in lieu of lawmakers' smacking their foreheads, exclaiming, "My God, the grand jury's right! What have we been thinking?"

Leach, 48, is a smart lawyer with a well-known sense of humor, so I figure he was joking when he wrote that the grand jury's recommendations are "in many respects, dead wrong."

Really? You mean like suggesting that the sixth-largest state doesn't need the largest full-time legislature and staff in America, especially since that Legislature meets, on average, 100 days a year?

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that only three other states - California, New York, Michigan - are full time. That means three states larger than Pennsylvania - Florida, Illinois and Texas - and all the rest somehow manage with less.

And since only a handful of leaders and staff drive legislation and decide budgets, why are 253 well-paid, well-perked lawmakers served by 2,800 staffers? No state has as high a staff-to-member ratio.

The grand jury cites testimony saying that half the House Democratic jobs are "superfluous" and that if House Republicans sliced their staff to what's needed for "legitimate" work, we'd save $11.2 million a year.

I call Leach.

He says that what's missed is Pennsylvania's lawmaker-to-constituent ratio, and he's right in reference to the 50-member Senate. Of the six largest states, our Senate's constituents-per-district ratio is right in the mix.

But the House? NCSL data show that our 203 House members represent far fewer folks than in any other large state and would better fit the national ratio with about 80 fewer seats. I'd happily offer suggestions on who goes.

Leach also says he never sees in print the fact that among the four statutory full-time legislatures, our lawmakers are lowest-salaried.

California lawmakers, who recently took a pay cut, get $95,291; Michigan, $79,650; New York, $79,500; Pennsylvania, $78,315.

OK, it's in the print. But here's the thing: Those other legislatures are smaller, so Pennsylvania salaries cost our taxpayers millions more than theirs, and the total cost of our Legislature far outstrips every other state's except California's, which has three times our population.

There is no reason to pay so much to run an assembly of so many.

Another issue ripe for ripping is paying lawmakers per-diem expenses of $163 for days they claim to be working. Per diems are tax-free, require no receipts and can be claimed for session days and nonsession days. They can add tens of thousands of dollars to base pay (leaders get much more).

Philly Democratic Rep. Mark Cohen, the Hall of Fame expensemeister, once collected 500 per diems in 20 months, including for weekends and holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur and Labor Day.

He's been re-elected ever since, and this year he has no opposition.

Session days are usually Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. The report says leaders have scheduled nonvoting days on Thursdays and then served doughnuts, eggs and/or fruit plates to members who collect per diems by writing their names on a sign-in sheet.

Nice, eh? A legislative B&B - booty and breakfast.

Even Leach concedes that requiring receipts is "a good point, conceptually," although he argues that it won't save much money.

I argue it's the right thing to do, and any cost-savings are worth it.

Leach doesn't like a smaller or part-time legislature, but says savings are available by consolidating some staff and reducing session days only to days when voting on serious issues.

He also pushes a reapportionment commission to reduce the ability of legislative leaders to continue gerrymandering districts. This is a key reform that could lead to more competition and less incumbent protection, and so it wallows, Leach says, "in quiet repose" in the committee to which it was sent in February 2009.

It is, like the grand-jury report, another DOA in the graveyard of reform that is our Legislature, where good ideas so often go to die.

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