Wednesday, March 28, 2007

PA Governor's Six Sweeping Reform Proposals

On March 26, 2007, during a public appearance, Governor Edward G. Rendell announced six major proposals for reform in Pennsylvania that would affect open public records, campaign finances, legislators' term limits, merit selection of judges, reduction in the size of the Legislature, and designation of elective districts.

The Governor's Press Release, dated March 26, 2007, is entitled "To Improve Accountability, Governor Rendell Unveils Historic Reform Proposal". It opens with a statement of the need for reform in six fundamental areas of Pennsylvania government:

Governor Edward G. Rendell today unveiled a six-pronged proposal that would dramatically change the way Pennsylvania government operates and help restore the public’s trust.

The package, unveiled during an appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club, would give the public and the press a wider look at the business functions of state government, impose limits on campaign contributions and otherwise tighten campaign finance rules, change the constitution to limit lawmakers’ time in office, establish new requirements for legislative redistricting, provide for the merit selection of judges, and have the General Assembly form a commission to make recommendations on how to reduce the size of the legislature.

“Citizens will not rest until there is an end to perks, an end to control by private interests and an end to political rules that shut them out of the process,” the Governor said as he noted the changes the House and Senate are already debating and the media coverage they’re receiving. * * *

The Governor said some of his proposals have been debated – and proposed – before, but he said the time is right to make these changes now.
The Press Release explains the proposed initiatives (some of which would require amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution) under headings, with longer explanations after the introductions:
Open Records
Governor Rendell said there have been significant changes to the commonwealth’s open records laws, but he said more work remains. More than 5,000 right-to-know requests have been received by his administration since he became Governor in 2003, yet the constraints of current law forced the denial of half of those. * * *

Merit Selection of Judges
The Governor’s proposal for merit selection would replace the current election of state appellate court judges with a system that requires nominations from the Governor based on a list of judges recommended for appointment by an Appellate Court Nominating Commission. Nominees would require Senate confirmation. * * *

Campaign Finance Reform

Governor Rendell’s proposal to change the way candidates can raise money would also restore the public’s faith in the election process. * * *

Legislative Reapportionment
Under his proposal to ensure that State legislative districts are not configured to benefit candidates or political parties, Governor Rendell is calling for the creation of a nine-member citizens’ commission to replace the current method of reapportionment. * * *

Reducing the Size of the Legislature
Governor Rendell said he is proposing an 11-member commission to study the size of the legislature and to make recommendations for an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that would reduce the number of members of the General Assembly. * * *

Term Limits
Governor Rendell said his term limits proposal will require an amendment to the state constitution and will be phased in after it is adopted in two sessions of the General Assembly and is approved by voters. Once in place, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate would only be allowed to serve eight years – or four, two-year terms in the House; and two, four-year terms in the Senate. * * *
The Press Release reported Governor Rendell's optimism in proposing such fundamental changes:
“Legislators’ passion for these changes is what makes this state and this nation great and the press’s work to continue to report on the progress and flaws in these efforts is critical to making sure we don’t ever stop moving this work forward.”
Would you be surprised if you read the following reaction by the press?
On first glance, Governor Rendell's Plan for a New Pennsylvania looks like the proverbial kitchen sink. It is crowded with a multitude of proposals. * * * The Plan, by any reckoning, is aggressive, complicated, and not the way Pennsylvania usually does things.

The debate on it hasn't really started. When it does, we can expect that each part of the Plan will generate vocal advocates, critics, and at least 45 alternative proposals. But now is a good time to take a quick look at the issues behind the governor's proposal.
Actually, that is not a reaction to the Governor's present six-pronged proposal.

No, this reaction, as reported in an article entitled "Putting big issues on Pennsylvania's policy table", which was posted online by IssuesPA
(an initiative of the Pennsylvania Economy League), had occurred in response to another Press Release issued four years ago -- on March 26, 2003.

That prior proposal related to Governor Rendell's "Plan for a New Pennsylvania", which was not funded by the Legislature thereafter, according to subsequent reports. See:
"Killion Releases Statement on House Defeat of Tax Increases" (09/16/03).

Back then, with the Governor's political party in the minority, a compromised, limited property tax reduction enactment eventually resulted from Rendell's initial proposals. This time, the Democrats hold a slight majority in the Legislature.

What will be the outcome of these new proposals? Only the ensuing political debate will tell.

At least in discussions on the "Open Records" aspects of the Governor's six new proposals, I hope that someone will advocate the public's need for online availability of already-enacted Pennsylvania statutes. See: "Sunshine Week" in PA Neglects Statutes" (03/20/07).

But that should not be a political agenda item. It should be an executive implementation of a routine "good government" practice, as already conducted in the other 49 states.

* * *
Update: 03/29/07:

The Philadelphia Bar Association publicly endorsed Governor Rendell's proposal for merit selection of Pennsylvania judges. See: Press Release, dated March 28, 2007, entitled "Bar Association Applauds Governor's Proposal for Merit Selection of Judges":
The 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association today applauded Gov. Edward G. Rendell's announcement on Monday proposing an appointment-based system to replace the current system of electing Pennsylvania appellate court judges.

"We commend the Governor for taking this important step and look forward to working with him and the Legislature in finalizing this proposed Constitutional amendment for consideration by the citizens of Pennsylvania," said Association Chancellor Jane Dalton.

Calling the current system "a terrible process" for selecting judges, the Chancellor noted that the state's system of electing judicial candidates is based on an appearance of "pay-to-play" tactics that force those candidates to accept contributions from lawyers and special interest
groups that will, one day, argue cases before them.

"That is the opposite of everything we stand for in a fair justice system," Dalton said. * * *
* * *
Update: 04/13/07:

For a further development,
see: " Officials hold 3d hearing on revamping Pa. government", by Vernon Clark, published April 12, 2007, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, two state senators heard testimony yesterday on the convening of a constitutional convention for the reform of state government.

State Sens. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Michael Folmer (R., Lebanon) held the third hearing on the topic, listening to the views of three speakers: an area lawyer and author, a Rutgers University law school professor, and the president of the local League of Women Voters. Previous hearings were held in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

* * *