Reform is one of the most abused words in Pennsylvania’s legislative lexicon. In the years since the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise uprising many lawmakers have hopped on the reform bandwagon – including some that created and abused the very procedures they profess to want to reform. With a seemingly endless parade of state officials populating the prisons, and policy gridlock under the capitol dome, it is clear reforms are needed.
Penn’s Woods lacks citizen ballot initiative rights, so the only way to reform the General Assembly is for it to reform itself. That, of course, requires a majority of members to admit that there is a problem. A number of legislators in both chambers have banded together to create a reform caucus. Serious and necessary reform proposals have emerged from that group. Unfortunately, virtually all lack the widespread support needed to move anything through Pennsylvania’s moribund legislative machinery.
I will digress to credit legislative leaders in both chambers, in particular Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi for their support of open records legislation. While the open records law does not go far enough, it is the one reform that has resulted in improving government transparency. Senator Pileggi continues to fight for needed enhancements to the law.
But, the one so-called reform that has drawn the most support from legislative leadership is reducing the size of the General Assembly. Currently, Pennsylvanians elect 203 representatives in the state house and 50 state senators. It is one of the largest state legislative bodies in the nation. The tiny state of New Hampshire has the most house members – 424. But, and this is an important distinction, they are paid only $100.00 per year serving without the perks of Pennsylvania’s full-time General Assembly.
On its face reducing the size of the Pennsylvania General Assembly would appear to be serious reform. It is not. Size is not the problem with Pennsylvania’s legislature, it is cost. When you consider the entire 424-member New Hampshire state legislature is collectively paid less per year than even one Pennsylvania state representative, the problem becomes clear. Size reduction will do nothing to address the cost drivers of maintaining the state legislature while concentrating power in the hands of fewer lawmakers.
And therein can be found the ulterior motive. Fewer members will require districts that will be larger both in terms of population and geography. This will increase the cost of campaigns, minimizing grassroots activity and enhancing the importance of money. Lobbyists and special interest groups – who already play an outsized role in policy debates – will become even more powerful as candidates will need more of their dollars to fund campaigns. Larger districts also make lawmakers less accessible to the average voter. Think about how much easier it is to personally talk to your state representative than it is to gain an audience with your congressman.
If members serve larger districts they will require additional staff. Thus, any payroll costs cut by having fewer lawmakers will be erased by higher staff costs. In the end look for the number of new staff hired to eclipse the number of legislators cut. It is possible – in fact likely – that costs will go up, not down, if legislative seats are eliminated.
There is also the issue of concentrating more power in the hands of fewer officials. Size reduction is drawing support from leadership in both chambers. This is because it is much easier to influence or control fewer members. Ditto the lobbyists and special interests that will be able to focus their efforts on corralling fewer votes. Pennsylvania’s legislature is already a leadership-driven institution. Cutting the number of members would only make it more so.
Rather than dangling the shiny trinket of size reduction before the eyes of taxpayers hungry for real reform efforts should focus on the real cost drivers of the General Assembly. For example: why does the institution meet year round? Currently the legislature is in the midst of a two and a half month recess. Why not, like Maryland to our south, have a part-time legislature that meets only 90 days each year? That would cut both salaries and operating costs. It would be even easier to eliminate unvouchered per diems – a system regularly abused; switch from a defined benefits pension system of questionable constitutionality to a defined contribution system; and, with part-time lawmakers eliminate costly health care benefits.
When considering any reform it is important to look past the nice sounding words that accompany its introduction and fully consider all possible ramifications. The road to reform is one Pennsylvania highway that has been well paved with good intentions gone awry.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)