AT A RECENT meeting with the Daily News editorial board, Gov. Rendell read one of his favorite lists of items, one that includes such diverse items as helicopters, dental floss, dry cleaning, candy, caskets, gold bullion and sunburn ointment.
The connection among these disparate things? They are among the many items exempt from taxation in Pennsylvania. Don't look for obvious logic Pennsylvania's tax policy is too often based on the power of lobbyists and their money rather than coherent strategy. As the governor explained, "You've heard of girls gone wild? This is lobbyists gone wild."
The helicopter exemption is the most recent example of policy gone wild; a major helicopter manufacturer in the state supplies the U.S. government, which doesn't pay tax, but also counts among its client base the United Arab Emirates. And they've been successful in making sure lawmakers have given them a free ride, tax-wise.
Smokeless tobacco interests scored another recent success when they prevented the General Assembly from taxing them, which could have gone a long way to help solve the recent budget crisis.
The influence of lobbyist money is just one of the critical areas that need fixing – which is why were were encouraged when last month Rendell announced he was tackling reform in Harrisburg. Rendell outlined three key areas ripe for reform: campaign finance, citizen-led redistricting and better controls on lobbyists.
A lame-duck governor promising reform is nothing new, an easy promise that can remain empty. But a lame duck also has little to lose - especially the governor of a state that has been rocked with a string of scandals and indictments that are likely to continue well into the new year.
There have been few recent public-opinion polls measuring the disgust of the electorate over the most recent scandals - but the legislative pay-raise grab of 2005 proved that people will take their disgust to the polls. Still, the system is so entrenched that waiting for another round of elections is not necessarily the best strategy for fixing our current ailments.
Ultimately, the road map to reform must be drawn by voters. Public pressure on the current Legislature isn't enough. For one thing, that would be demanding that lawmakers act against their self-interest – and why would they start now?
Besides, as we have seen, our lawmakers are adept at suggesting that minute changes represent great strides.
If this past year has told us anything, it's that the problems in Harrisburg are so systemic that a nuclear option may be necessary. That nuclear option would be a constitutional convention.
Citizen delegates elected from across Pennsylvania would gather in Harrisburg and rewrite the constitution. The scope of their power would be almost unlimited. For example, all three major reforms mentioned above could be accomplished via the convention. The convention could also shrink the size of the Legislature, change tax codes, and enact dozens of other measures to modernize state government.
All of these changes would have to go before the voters for approval. Of course, these are very complicated issues. That's why the state's media must do a better job increasing public awareness and understanding. People need to understand how our lack of campaign finance regulations, the lack of restrictions on lobbying, and the cozy way politicians draw up their districts leads to outcomes that are bad for Pennsylvanians. There are potential downsides to a constitutional convention, and complicated issues to pull one off, but the benefits far outweigh those downsides. At this point, a convention is the most direct route to reforming the state. The state hasn't had a constitutional convention for over 40 years. Pennsylvanians should make clear to the people they have put in office that it's way past time for another one.