THERE ARE NOW at least five bills in Harrisburg that would reduce the size of the Legislature. Since we rarely get to write the words "good news from Harrisburg," we reluctantly put efforts to pare the size of the $300-million-a-year General Assembly into the good-news category.
Our reluctance is not because we believe that the 253 members of the House and Senate, the largest full-time body in the U.S., is the proper number. Nor do we think that a smaller body would necessarily imperil democracy.
What keeps us from doing full-on cartwheels is that these proposals illustrate how impossible it is to expect the General Assembly to reform itself. That's because it has effectively ignored a detailed - and scathing - grand jury report that, if followed, could actually make a more immediate and lasting difference. The report was issued more than a year ago by a jury impaneled during the Bonusgate scandal. Twenty-three citizens were so shocked by what they learned about the operations of the General Assembly that they were moved to address them in a separate report.
The judge who received the report was so shocked by what he read that he issued six pages of his own reaction, which began: "I characterize the contents of the grand jury report as extraordinary. Actually, one of my first thoughts when I read the report was the line uttered by the broadcaster in the satirical move 'Network' - 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.' "
What got him mad will have the same impact on anyone reading the report (find it at http:// media.philly.com/documents/ bonusgate.pdf). It describes a legislative body operating in a "time warp," with bloated staffs and budgets, no accountability, and gross disregard for taxpayer money. Among the grand jury's recommendations:
* Political caucuses should end. Taxpayers should not be funding partisan political caucuses that "eat up more and more taxpayer resources with little to no tangible benefits ."
* Staffing levels are bloated: At the time of the report, 2,805 staffers were employed by 253 elected members, meaning more than nine support staffers for each state rep and 17 staffers for each senator, numbers no one could justify. The jury recommended that staffing could be cut by 40 percent with no problem.
* Per diems should die.
We don't need a full-time Legislature, and if the body becomes smaller, the terms for state reps should be extended to four years instead of two, so lawmakers don't have to run for re-election the minute they get into office, which encourages the abuses that Bonusgate created.