HARRISBURG - With more than 50 new lawmakers in the House and Senate vowing to bring change to the state Capitol, there was hope that 2007 would be the "Year of Reform": greater access to open records, tougher campaign-finance laws, and, one day, perhaps even a smaller legislature.
Instead, lawmakers are poised to leave Harrisburg this week without having passed even the one government reform bill they believed could be sent to Gov. Rendell before Christmas: the expanded open-records law.
That has left good-government advocates grading the year not in terms of reforms, but by the number of scandals - including a looming investigation by the state Attorney General's Office into whether taxpayer-funded bonuses were used to reward legislative staffers for campaign work last year.
"The Hail Mary play for open records in the final seconds of the year is an act of political desperation," said Tim Potts, cofounder of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-area public interest group.
Yesterday morning, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), sponsor of the open-records proposal, pointed to the numerous last-minute changes made to the bill by the House, saying they would require time to study.
As a result, he said, the Senate will not reconsider the proposal until January. This after months of debate.
"There is something seriously awry with the legislative process in Pennsylvania when, within a year, you cannot get a consensus on measures that are important to the electorate," said G. Terry Madonna, pollster and political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.
"It shows that there is a glacial pace for reform in a legislature that is badly in need of reform," he said.
Legislative leaders, however, have made some headway in their efforts to increase government accountability and openness.
No longer, for instance, are representatives and senators permitted to work into the wee hours of the morning, when the public is not awake to watch. Both chambers have instituted pledges to stop work at 11 p.m.
And bills, including amendments, are moving at a much slower and more deliberate pace, ending the long-tolerated practice of lawmaking on the fly where sweeping legislation is inserted into existing bills at the last minute and voted on with members having but a few hours to read them.
There have been a few other subtle changes, as well: Votes on legislation are now posted online soon after they are cast. And legislators in both chambers are phasing out the option that let lawmakers lease pricey vehicles at taxpayer expense; now they can pick from a pool of vehicles.
But efforts to substantively change Harrisburg have moved in fits and starts throughout the year.
Competing bills in the House and Senate to reduce the size of the legislature, create a constitutional convention to allow lawmakers to recast the state constitution, and limit legislative perks have been bogged down in committees or have died.
Madonna pointed to a number of reasons for the delay in enacting government reforms, including a too-short work season. The Senate, for instance, will break for a month after today. The House has session days scheduled next week, but few believe its lawmakers will be required to meet in Harrisburg during that time.
Madonna and others also believe the legislature is distracted by negative publicity over questionable spending, as well as the monthslong attorney general's investigation into taxpayer-funded bonuses.
Nonetheless, the bill to expand open records was viewed, at least in Harrisburg circles, as the one piece of legislation everyone believed could be approved and sent to Rendell in 2007.
But the two chambers, from the start, had competing proposals. And it wasn't until this month that it became clear that Pileggi's Senate bill would become the working draft.
"I'm frustrated," said Rep. David Steil (R., Bucks), cochair of a legislative committee assembled earlier this year by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) to make recommendations on how to make government more accountable.
"These aren't partisan issues," Steil said. "They aren't about Republican or Democrat. They are about responsive government."
But Steil still says the legislature can buckle down next year and make government reform a legislative priority.
"We can't stop. We have got to keep pushing," said Steil, who recently announced he would not seek another term. "Because at some point, we're going to have to go back to the people we represent and explain to them why we haven't done anything."
Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), the other cochair of the legislative committee on reform, said his goal was to have good-government bills signed into law during the 2007-08 legislative session.
"My pledge was that this would be the session of reform - and our session is two years," he said.