Monday, July 26, 2010

John D. Forester Jr.'s Take On A Full Time Legislature

Yesterday, John D. Forester, Jr. penned this opinion in the Reading Eagle of the Pennsylvania legislature's claims to being a full time body.

I have a full-time job.

So far this year, I've taken one week of vacation and a few personal days, and I was off New Year's Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. Not to mention weekends.

Still, I've managed to put in 130 workdays so far in 2010.

That's a full-time job.

State lawmakers also have full-time jobs.

So far this year, members of the House of Representatives have worked a total of 46 days, while members of the Senate have put in 44 workdays.

That's a full-time job?

State Senator Daylin Leach(leech of taxpayers money) tried to counter that opinion earlier this year with an op-ed column of his own. He blasted the Bonusgate Jury conclusion that Pennsylvania should return to a part time legislature. Yes, at one time Pennsylvania did have a part time legislature. In fact Pennsylvania only had 100 representatives in the 1800's.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Bonusgate grand jury issued a report which has received a great deal of media attention. This report had nothing to do with the specific criminal charges against specific individuals it investigated. This report was an extremely rare supplemental grand pronouncement on the state of our government, along with numerous recommendations for restructuring the entire Legislature.

The methodology, conclusions and recommendations of the report are, in many respects, dead wrong.

But because the grand jury's methodology was incomplete given its self-appointed role as the re-inventor of state government, its members' factual findings were often inaccurate. And given that, the recommendations based upon those findings were, for the most part, ill-conceived.

They also say being a Pennsylvania legislator should not qualify as full-time work. Wrong again. Most legislators spend 70 to 80 hours per week, every week, at their jobs and still struggle to keep up.

Inaccurate information leads to poor recommendations. Sure, some of the technical suggestions, such as consolidating House printing offices, might have merit, but their broad policy suggestions would do great harm to our state if implemented.

For example, a part-time Legislature is a terrible idea. We make decisions affecting tens of billions of dollars in complicated policy areas such as transportation, health care, criminal justice and economic development. In some matters, such as abortion, the death penalty and access to medical care, our decisions literally have life and death consequences.

Of course Senator Leach is way off the mark with his comments.

Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation wrote an Opinion in The Mercury making the case for a part time Pennsylvania legislature.

Ask Pennsylvanians what comes to mind when they hear the words "state government," and the responses will regularly include corruption, late budgets, cronyism, wasteful spending, and ineffectiveness. In a January Franklin & Marshall College poll, only 16 percent of Pennsylvania voters said the state legislature was doing a "good" job.

It's not surprising, then, that the idea of returning Pennsylvania's Legislature to part-time is gaining steam given the lack of trust in our elected officials.

With a price tag that's grown to $300 million, Pennsylvania's 253-member General Assembly is the most expensive (and second largest) state legislature in the country. It's also among the four most "professionalized" in the nation, with staff totaling nearly 3,000. For perspective, the legislatures of Illinois and Ohio — the states closest in population to Pennsylvania — have 1,023 and 465 staff, respectively.

The annual salary for rank-and-file Pennsylvania legislators ($78,314) is the fourth-highest in the country.

There is a direct link between our full-time Legislature and our state economy. A Commonwealth Foundation analysis shows a strong connection between legislative professionalization and higher spending per capita, a higher tax burden, and less economic freedom. Specifically, each increase in the level of professionalization results in an estimated $441 increase in spending per person, and a 0.4 percent increase in taxes as a percentage of income. For highly professionalized legislatures, like Pennsylvania's, the effect is five times those estimates.

In contrast, consider the case of Texas. The Lone Star State has twice the population of Pennsylvania and is four times the size of the Keystone State geographically. Yet, the Texas legislature meets once every two years for 140 days to produce a biennial budget. When Texas lawmakers need to deal with emergency situations or revise their budget, they return for a limited, special session. During its 2007 session, Texas' legislature passed 1,672 bills, while Pennsylvania's full-time General Assembly passed less than one-fifth that number.

Over the last two years, Texas has created more jobs than Pennsylvania and the other 48 states combined!

The Department of Justice gives Pennsylvania an "F" for its limited disclosure of legislators' assets, holdings, and related information. A December 2008 USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics ranks Pennsylvania tied with Florida as the 11th most corrupt state in the union (with 4.5 public officials convicted for every 100,000 residents).

Brad Bumsted of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review chimed in with his own Opinion this weekend.

In all, 27 legislators, former lawmakers and staffers have been accused of crimes since 2008. That counts the federally indicted Fumo and former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Lawrence County, sentenced to House arrest after pleading guilty to two felony counts of conflict of interest.

The Ories, DeWeese and Perzel maintain their innocence.

The surge in corruption cases, at least in the public's mind, hasn't yet reached critical mass. It will unfortunately take more charges before the public demands a complete and thorough overhaul of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Legislators have used state tax money as their own, creating an Incumbency Protection Program that has perverted representative government and robbed Pennsylvanians of fair elections.

The title of Bumsted's Opinion says it all "When will enough be enough?"

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