Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is The Caucus System Responsible For Our State Deficits?

The Grand Jury hearing the Bonusgate allegations as well as the misuse of taxpayer monies issued a scathing report of the party caucus system in Harrisburg as highlighted in this report from Robert Swift. In Karl Rove's book, Courage and Consequence, he writes "We saw that politics is not about power or status, but about ideas and ideals. To view it as about power was to treat it as a game, cynical and ultimately meaningless and cruel. But to understand that it was about great principles was to understand that politics could be hopeful and important exercise at the center of our democratic experience."

In the Grand Jury report anaymous members leveled their harshest criticism in a 34-page report against the legislative caucuses, which they said exist "in the shadows of the law, as the years go by eating up more and more taxpayer resources with little or no tangible benefit to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania."

While many, including lawmakers themselves, have proposed reforms during the five years since the controversial legislative pay raise, the caucus system hasn't come under much scrutiny until now.

The grand jury report cites examples of duplication of activities in the House Democratic and Republican caucus printing shops and information technology departments and overstaffing as problems, but has relatively little to say about the respective Senate caucuses. This omission occurs despite repeated statements by state Attorney General Tom that his Bonusgate investigation is looking at the illegal use of taxpayer dollars for political activities in both chambers.

Mr. Rove's words resonate loud and clear with what is wrong with the caucus system in Harrisburg. Both parties clearly view it as about power, not principles. Swift writes "From the day a new lawmaker is elected to office, the caucus system is a fixture. Members attend caucus orientation sessions before they take office, are assigned seats on the floor with other caucus members and meet every session day in closed-door caucuses to hash out policy issues."

As a result of that failed and flawed system we are faced with a $1.2 billion deficit in Pennsylvania this year and its not over.

The bad fiscal news comes with a month remaining before the June 30 deadline for enacting the fiscal 2010-11 state budget. The House and Senate return to session Monday to start a prolonged period in session leading up to the deadline.

A month ago, key lawmakers said Pennsylvania was headed to a revenue gap above $1 billion.

Lawmakers like House Majority Leader Todd Eachus wanted to make us believe he would be able to deliver a budget on time for next year.

"We are projecting a $500,000 shortfall in the 2010-11 budget," Eachus said to a Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce Red Carpet Breakfast audience at Capriotti's in Tresckow. "There is an $800,000 medical assistance payment due from the federal government. If that is paid, we will be within range of our two-year budget planning process." Mr. Eachus you are not within your projections and the caucus system is partly to blame.

As the Grand Jury stated The jury members find the roots of the illegal campaign activity that happened at least through 2006 in the patronage hiring done by the caucuses. Many of the legislative staffers were hired regardless of qualification due to the intercession of a lawmaker, they suggested. Their positions are secure even if they cannot do their jobs adequately, so additional staffers have to be hired.

"That process, over time, has contributed to the existence of hundreds of legislative employees who, although paid by the taxpayers to do legislative work, do campaign work on state time or with state resources, or other non-legislative work," the jurors wrote.

The real problem are the career legislators in Harrisburg. They view their position as their primary job. One does not go to college to become a legislator. There is no degree awarded to be a legislator. Their viewpoint is causing them to work the system for themselves. Their per diems, their pay raises, their retirement, every benefit they bestow upon themselves violates every principle of public trust.

Will the caucuses do the right thing? If they forget about the power and winning elections they will truly understand politics. Until then the pubic will view them as cynical and ultimately meaningless and cruel.

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