The most difficult part of reforming Harrisburg involves legislators giving up the unfair advantages that keep them in power.
The twin pillars of incumbency are safe districts and unlimited campaign donations. Pennsylvania ranks among the worst states on both fronts.
A study last year by a Philadelphia firm rated Pennsylvania as the second-most "gerrymandered" state in the nation. The term refers to oddly shaped districts that ignore municipal boundaries, drawn to maximize an incumbent's chances of winning by including voters of one party and excluding the other party.
Prior to last year's voter revolt over the infamous legislative pay raise, incumbents in Pennsylvania rarely lost elections. In 2004, about half of House members had no opposition. Of 193 incumbents seeking reelection, only two lost. Partisan redistricting exists to protect incumbents.
There seems to be little enthusiasm for nonpartisan redistricting among members of the special Speaker's Commission that is exploring reforms of the legislature. Some members, such as Rep. Bob Freeman (D., Northampton), consider redistricting a crucial task. Others are in no hurry. Given the commission's requirement of a three-fourths "super-majority" vote to approve proposals, more members need to push hard for nonpartisan redistricting to make it a reality.
Rep. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) has introduced a bill that would create a nonpartisan commission to take politics out of redistricting. The panel would not be allowed to consider political factors when drawing district boundaries. That's similar to a system that has worked in Iowa. Whichever route the legislature decides to take toward this reform, it should get started this year so a new process can be in place for the 2010 census.
The other pillar of incumbent protection is a system of unlimited campaign donations. The commission created by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) has yet to decide whether it wants to limit individual donations. That should be a no-brainer. Even congressional candidates must operate under limits of $2,300 per person.
The current no-holds-barred system in Pennsylvania is resulting in individual legislative races costing nearly $1 million, ensuring that wealthier donors will buy more access. Lawmakers can quibble about the size of the donation limits, but limits there must be.
One bad idea that seems headed for a rightful rejection is term limits. Pennsylvania voters demonstrated last year that they know how to use their power to limit terms, by sending 54 new legislators to Harrisburg. Also, imposing legislative term limits would increase the influence of the governor and lobbyists.
As Larry Frankel of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Speaker's Commission, if legislators want to defeat the idea of term limits, they need only to tell their constituents that they have a plan "to give ACLU lobbyists more power."
The way to create a more responsive legislature is to prevent incumbents from stacking the deck with safe districts and unlimited fund-raising. If the legislature tackles those problems, voters will have a fighting chance to impose individual term limits at the ballot box.