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Legislators Scoff at Report

HARRISBURG - The grand jury report urging sweeping changes to root out corruption in the legislature revived calls Tuesday from most corners of the capital for quick and dramatic action.

HARRISBURG - The grand jury report urging sweeping changes to root out corruption in the legislature revived calls Tuesday from most corners of the capital for quick and dramatic action.

But not from the legislature.

Leaders there said the report does not reflect the legislature of today - one that has made a number of changes in its rules and operations to address some of the ills that grand jurors detailed in their scathing report released Monday.

The report said the General Assembly lives in a " 'time warp' of public corruption" and needs to cut staff, institute term limits, and go part-time, among many other changes. It was written by the grand jury impaneled two years ago by Attorney General Tom Corbett's office to investigate corruption, including the so-called Bonusgate scandal.

Brett Marcy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne), said of the jury's findings: "It seems to be based largely on perceptions of the past and incorrect assumptions about the legislative process, rather than an accurate reflection of today's legislative operations."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said there was a keen awareness among most lawmakers that the public mistrusted government. He noted that the House GOP had pushed a package of bills aimed at making the legislative process more open and accountable. "This report is a time warp," said Miskin. "It was a picture of the legislature a few years ago."

That is, said Harrisburg-based activist Tim Potts, exactly the response he expected to hear.

Potts, cofounder of the group Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, said his and other advocacy groups have pushed for years to get the legislature to reform itself, shrink its ranks, and open up its finances to public inspection. He said that after the outcry over the pay raise that legislators approved for themselves in 2005, they made changes to their operations. But Potts, a former legislative aide, called those "window-dressing."

Those changes included requiring that no legislative votes be taken after 11 p.m.; that expenses be made public online; and that bills remain on the calendar for 24 hours before a final vote is taken.

"These are not things that were intended to change the culture in Harrisburg," said Potts. "They were intended as a smoke screen, because the legislature can waive those rules whenever it wants to."

The grand jury recommended that Pennsylvania hold a constitutional convention to institute term limits and extend House members' terms from two to four years (senators serve four-year terms).

It also suggested that the legislature become a part-time body, which would allow it to cut a bloated staff, as well as salaries.

The report called for eliminating taxpayer funding of the four party caucuses, and recommended that special multimillion-dollar "leadership" accounts be eliminated or, at the least, that all expenses be made public.

Gov. Rendell said Tuesday that the report gave "a significant road map for reform," but stressed that it was up to the legislature to decide when to tackle the issues.

He did point out that lawmakers had much work ahead of them this year, including passing a budget and figuring out a way to fund the state's bridges and highways.

"These are all serious matters that need immediate attention," the governor said.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said the report offered useful observations about the need for clear lines between legislative and campaign work. He said the Senate was poised to adopt ethics rules that would do just that.

But Arneson said he did not see momentum building for a constitutional convention.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said it would take strong leadership from the next governor to push the legislature to undertake large-scale reforms, including a constitutional convention.

On Tuesday, both major parties' candidates for governor embraced portions of the grand jury's recommendations.

Democratic nominee Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, said he favored reducing the size of the legislature and imposing term limits. He said he would consider changing the length of House terms.

Since those specific proposals would require constitutional changes, Onorato said he would call for a limited constitutional convention to address them all at once.

Onorato also agreed with the jury's call for abolishing so-called walking around money, or WAMs. Created by the legislature a generation ago, these are pools of funds, controlled by legislative leaders, that can be earmarked for projects in legislators' home districts.

Onorato said he favored eliminating per diems - the daily payments for meals and lodging that House and Senate members receive automatically when the legislature is in session. He also echoed the grand jury's call for requiring members to prove actual expenses and submit receipts before receiving any payment.

Corbett, whose office has led the Bonusgate grand-jury investigation, agreed that WAMs and per diems should be eliminated.

And he said discretionary funds controlled by party leaders in each house should be drastically reduced, but not eliminated.

But Corbett disagreed with the jury's idea of reducing the size of the legislature, said his campaign manager, Brian Nutt. Corbett would reduce the cost of running the legislature, but not its size.

Corbett also disagreed with imposing term limits, saying it could actually be counterproductive for reform, making wet-behind-the-ears legislators more dependent on permanent staffers and lobbyists.