All 203 Pennsylvania House seats and half of the 50 Senate seats are on the Nov. 6 ballot, but little is expected to change if voters don't do their jobs. And, this legislature — where members give themselves an average $87,180 salary, receipt-free expenses, long vacations, and for some, $183 every time they clock in at Harrisburg – could use a lot of change.
For example, despite an alarming Aug. 14 grand jury report detailing how 301 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 victims, Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), Majority Leader Jake Corman, (R., Centre) and most Senate Republicans killed a bill which would have uncapped the statutes of limitations, allowing victims and prosecutors to go after abusers and the institutions which enable them.
Even though Rep. Tarah Toohil (R., Luzerne) filed a formal complaint telling House Republican leaders that Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware), kicked her and pulled a gun on her, and a second woman said he forced her to have sex, the House failed to enact bills protecting women from sexual harassment. They couldn't even censure Miccarelli, who denies the accusations. (He declined to seek re-election.)
Even after a string of arrests and guilty pleas from four lawmakers for accepting bribes, legislators didn't look at a gift ban or reining in virtually unlimited campaign donations. Rep. Vanessa Brown (D., Philadelphia) just went on trial on charges she took $4,000 from a lobbyist.
And, both parties killed a reform bill aimed at letting voters pick their own representatives. Now, the ruling party gerrymanders members into safe seats. Even though Democrats are cheated by the current system, they helped drown this reform in hundreds of amendments.
But they easily passed bills in the 2017-18 session that permitted slot machines at truck stops, raised bingo prizes, and let hunters use dogs to recover dead and dying deer.
The legislature behaved slightly better with the budget this year than in recent years, though that wasn't hard. For the previous three years, it put us through costly impasses, which hurt the state's credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow money. They also passed an important bill which makes it easier to take guns away from violent domestic abusers. But they did nothing to take guns away from people with mental illness or to keep criminals from getting guns.
The legislature can do more. Members should be raising the minimum wage, lowering property taxes, taxing natural-gas drillers, and protecting us from gun violence. But they won't make any progress if they think the public is looking the other way.
And, it is. There is such little interest in these races that five candidates are running unopposed in the 25 Senate races on the ballot. In House races, 72 candidates for the 203 seats are running unopposed. That's a sign of a dangerous lack of public engagement. Voters in those districts should write in someone who they think would make a good legislator.