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Karen Heller: Where bigger is still better

Harrisburg is the cash cow town that dares to dream big, especially when it comes to payrolls and power. While other states changed the way they did business, Pennsylvania is having none of that smaller-is-better efficiency nonsense.

Harrisburg is the cash cow town that dares to dream big, especially when it comes to payrolls and power. While other states changed the way they did business, Pennsylvania is having none of that smaller-is-better efficiency nonsense.

With 253 elected officials, and a legislative staff of 2,918, the largest of any state in both categories, we support the Hummer of state governments.

Downsizing is for sissy states and private industries foolish enough to take note of the recession and actually trim waste.

In a blistering 34-page report issued last week, an investigating grand jury took issue with the bloated legislature, especially the four party caucuses governing the state Senate and House that operate as rogue fiefdoms, sometimes quadrupling services - maximum pork for them and zero efficiency for voters.

The prevailing mentality, the report notes, is "no one's guilty because everyone does it." The mission of serving the constituents "metastasized into 'serving myself may ultimately serve the constituents,' " which ultimately "was perverted further into simply 'serving myself.' "

If the report reads like Glenn Beck on Red Bull and Adderall, with a list of recommendations that would exhaust the Constitutional Convention it suggests, the grand jury members are to be forgiven. The poor dears have served two years indicting 24 legislative employees, including two former House speakers and the Democratic whip, in the Bonusgate scandal built on the chimerical line between the perpetual campaign and governance.

The mantra running through the report, much as it does in The Rocky Horror Picture Show - Harrisburg and the 1975 movie both works of camp that have aged poorly - is "time warp." That's taken from testimony by Rutgers' Alan Rosenthal, an authority on state legislatures.

"Pennsylvania, the Legislature, exists in a time warp. Whereas in the other 49 states, time seems to have changed and things have changed, Pennsylvania is still living back then. It's still doing what all the states did in the 1950s and 1960s," he said of efforts to prevent state workers from campaigning on the job. "I don't understand why. It's not that you don't have any communication systems here. You do hear about the outside world. There is television." Yet legislators with their huge staffs kept ignoring reform.

"Pennsylvania has a good ways to go to clean up its act," Rosenthal said yesterday. "Your system is almost more of four independent party caucuses rather than a legislature with a House and Senate." He observed "most state legislatures saw their numbers of professionals grow in the 1960s and '70s, plateau in the '90s, then decrease in the last decade." Instead, "you see a different pattern in Pennsylvania."

The caucuses "exist in the shadows of the law," according to the report, which calls for their abolition, along with other sweeping reforms. The House Democratic Caucus employs 911 staffers, only 350 of whom are vital to its daily operation, the report states. The caucuses run their own print shops, which are "in all meaningful respects, identical," that is, equally wasteful.

"When one of the House print shops acquires a particular piece of equipment, the other obtains the same item shortly thereafter." Haven't these guys heard of e-mail?

Well, actually, they have. That's why the four caucuses duplicate information-technology departments. There are staffers charged solely with constituent PennDot requests, 20 for the House Republicans, 14 for House Democrats. I think it will come as little surprise that many of those constituents aren't your great aunt in Altoona, but businesses that tend to contribute to legislative campaigns.

In turn, PennDot employs 35 workers to deal exclusively with lawmakers' requests even though, the report observes in a footnote, "the processing of PennDot items is not a proper legislative function."

Our legislators get paid anywhere from $78,315 to $122,254 - excluding perks, and oh what perks! - to legislate less than half the year while being allowed to hold other jobs. During the first five months this year, the House listed 30 active session days. "These numbers simply do not justify full-time status," the report states.

On the other hand, we can all rejoice knowing that on one of those days last week the General Assembly voted, just in time for berry season, that pie is no longer a "potentially hazardous substance."

"You just hope at some point the legislature gets it," says Rutgers' Rosenthal.

Yes, you do. But the whole system, which costs us $300 million annually, keeps incumbents in power unless they get indicted for campaigning on the job or voters get fed up with them granting themselves middle-of-the-night pay raises. But, really, not even this seems to stop absurd duplication of services with staffing levels that resemble GM's, circa 1967.

Understandably, lawmakers with such lordly staffs and privileges did not take kindly to a grand jury recommending radical, systemic change. After all, those jury members are merely voters.