IT'S A SAD day when it takes a grand jury to point out what the rest of us already know: the state legislature is in serious need of reform. (In case you missed it, the grand jury that's been looking at the Bonusgate scandal for two years has issued a report suggesting some badly needed changes to the way business is done in Harrisburg.)
There are many of us who've been saying this for years. In fact, the need to make state government more responsive - and more deserving of the public's trust - was one of the main reasons I decided to run for the state legislature.
I hope the jury's recommendations are a wake-up call for those in the legislature who want to keep things as they are. I think that when an impartial group of Pennsylvania citizens speaks about an issue this important, we should listen.
As outlined in the coverage, there are a number of recommendations made by the jury that I believe should be implemented to restore public faith in state government and ensure its efficient functioning. Among these suggestions are:
Reducing the number of state employees. The average number of employees per state legislator is nine. I agree that this number is too high. I currently employ three full-time staffers for two offices, and one staffer who works one day a week. Despite this, in 2009 my office was in the top 15 in constituents served out of all Democratic state representatives.
Fixing the budget process. The process, as we all know, is broken. The lack of line-item control by rank-and-file legislators is frustrating and nonproductive. Lack of communication between the two party caucuses during budget negotiations sets the stage for budget battles and gridlock. As the jury recommends, I believe taxpayer-funded political caucuses should either be ended or modified drastically to help reduce paralyzing partisan politics.
Reforming discretionary accounts. The problem with these accounts is not the projects that are funded as much as the secretive process. I believe discretionary grant-making should be publicly disclosed, as Congress has done with appropriations earmarks.
The separate taxpayer-funded human resources, information technology and print shops for the Democratic and Republican caucuses is a waste of taxpayer dollars. State legislators' staffs should be employed by the state - not a political caucus. Salaries and job descriptions and all personnel matters should be handled by one nonpartisan state office, as should IT support and print and copy needs.
The outdated practice of blanket per-diem payments needs to be modified. It is certainly fair to reimburse legislators when they are required to be in Harrisburg, away from home. I do accept per diem payments when I am required to be there, but I believe I've been prudent and have not abused the system.
In addition, I don't use a state car, don't accept reimbursement for mileage to attend district events (which would amount to a large sum of taxpayer dollars), my staff salary total is in the lower end of all representatives and my staff has not received any raise in salary since my term began.
In July 2009, I stood with a bipartisan group of legislators and introduced a package of reforms. It included legislation that would require state representatives to pay a percentage of their salary toward their health-care costs, legislation to fix redistricting and a ban on bonuses for all state employees.
It also included legislation to create a searchable Web site to track all state legislative expenses over $1,000, and restrict the awarding of contracts that may result in public officials' financial gain, including that of family members. These bills are now awaiting action by committees. They are all good ideas, and they need to be enacted into law, but it's unlikely that they will move unless all the members of the General Assembly feel more pressure for reform.
THIS IS WHY the grand-jury report is so important, and why we should be thanking them for their work - not dismissing them. Legislative reform must be one of the top priorities in Harrisburg, because important duties - like passing a responsible budget our constituents deserve - cannot be done efficiently until the house has been reformed.
I will continue to work toward change. I will press my colleagues to act on the package of reforms we introduced last year and I will support legislation that improves the way Harrisburg works.