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Get Harrisburg back to solving problems

Replace corrupt spoils system with a 'new normal.'

By Bob O'Donnell

The late speaker of the Pennsylvania House Jim Manderino once said, "We are trying to solve problems. Some people just can't do for themselves, and government has to help." His words ring true, perhaps now more than at any time in history since the Great Depression.

While the conversation concerning changes in Harrisburg has centered on regional and local impact, what is lost is a sense of what the legislature used to be, and perhaps could be again. It was, and could be, a place to debate, address, and legislate on the critical issues that affect real people with real problems. Since the time I left the legislature, a system of spoils and political rewards replaced what was once a political and legislative venue in which the principal focus was problem-solving for the public good.

This is not to say that there were not significant partisan and ideological clashes in the past. There were. But those debates between Matt Ryan for the Republicans and Jim Manderino or myself for the Democrats were an exchange of ideas, often deeply held, and aggressively presented in a public forum. They set the stage for genuine bipartisan engagement and a willingness to wrestle the problems of the moment to the ground.

While it is true that there were legislative initiative grants even then, or what have now become known as WAMs, they were minuscule compared to the massive transfers of taxpayer funds we have seen over the last decade. Similarly, the capital budget has become a grab bag for every special interest in the state.

This leads us, necessarily, to the painful but critical truth that so many parts of the body politic - public institutions, reporters, editorial writers, opinion makers, leaders of nonprofit institutions, community groups, and especially those in the private sector who benefit unfairly from public largesse - must understand: Bringing home the bacon means you are treating the taxpayers like hogs to be slaughtered and carved up.

It has become regionally fashionable to complain about "the rise of the West" as the new governor prepares to take office, and few of the leadership posts are held by Philadelphians. Embedded in that lament is the complaint that Philadelphia will get less; that spoils of the system will shift geographically; and that this is a bad outcome. But I suggest that a different approach is more useful.

The term "new normal" has found its way into the lexicon, mostly in assessing financial markets. I would argue that we in the commonwealth need a "new normal" in civic and political life, and to approach policy decisions with an open mind instead of an open checkbook. We need to take a hard look at many of the operating assumptions in government at every level.

Because of the budget challenges that governments will face in the coming years, there will not be a spoils system as we have known it. In the absence of continued, indiscrete long-term borrowing, discretionary dollars will be fewer, not more available. Indeed, just recently the state treasurer and the auditor general declined to sign off on the outgoing governor's request to borrow a billion dollars for a series of projects, many of which may have marginal necessity.

Manderino was right then, and he is right now. We can and must work to solve problems in government. We cannot afford business as usual. We need to be thoughtful and engaged, on both sides of the aisle, and across it. If we can do that, there is still hope that we can weather the challenging times ahead, and recreate a time when ideas mattered, and good public policy was a reward in itself. Government was that way once in Pennsylvania. It can be that way again.