Out with the old, in with the new….state constitution?

Dysfunction, failure points to need to revise 1968 state constitution

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogo copyHappy Old Year!

Or, same old, same old.

With precious few days left in 2015, the ongoing battle of the budget for the state of Pennsylvania continues unabated.

There is, to be sure, lots and lots of blame to be shared by all sides, from a state legislature that seems not to know what it wants to a rookie governor unable to make the system work.

With Tuesday’s move by Gov. Tom Wolf to veto some of the budget, but release funds to schools and social services, the immediate impact of this Harrisburg festival of the dumb is somewhat lessened for we the average folk.

And yes, it’s hard to argue with Wolf that this budget was, well, “garbage.” It was about $700 million short of being balanced, meaning the tax hike to cover the structural deficit needs to still be determined, despite many claims that this budget needed no such thing.

Some highlights:

Maintain fat-cat corporate welfare? Check.

Pushing additional school funding into added debt, by attempting to fund school construction by issuing debt rather than paying for it out of the general budget? Check.

Failure to address anything on liquor privatization? Check.

Failure to address anything on pension reform? Check.

If you are a true fiscal conservative, you have to be more than a little less than enthralled with all of the above, which is the same sort of short-sighted, loot the taxpayer moves we’ve seen from this legislature for a generation and got the commonwealth where it is today.

Worse, the chickensnit (or something like that) manner in which GOP house members fled Harrisburg on Dec. 23 and the Senate threw up its arms in frustration and sent Wolf a fairly pointless budget. That the house refuses to come back into session until Jan. 3 to take up these issues just puts salt in the wound.

Forget ideology — because to be blunt, both parties have been wrapping poor behavior in lame idealogical arguments to satisfy the true believers and mystify the rest of us — if any of us pulled this sort of behavior where we worked, we’d be out of a job, see Kelly, Chip, as an example.

Yes, Wolf is also to blame. He had a great opportunity to trade full-on liquor privatization for both a rational budget and more schools funding, but refused to bend out of fear of a few toothless union leaders (and generally, I’m pro-union, but in the last decade in this state, they’ve shown themselves to have all of the power of a stuffed cocker spaniel) and left-wing supporters. The opportunity for a horse trade and a “everybody wins” scenario was there for the taking, but Wolf struggled to negotiate.

In fairness, with this mess of a budget, Wolf had no options this week. He had to line-item veto the budget, which from what it appears is what the legislature was hoping to see happen.

We could sit here and argue the minutia (or publicly scratch our heads at why Chester County’s own Sen. Andy Dinniman was one of only two Senate Democrats to vote for this budget), and maybe just chock it up to partisan wrangling.

But that would be both wrong and, boring, which is apparently illegal now on the Interwebs (see, Trump, Donald J.).

I am, after a fashion, going to echo the calls of former State Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith:

It is time to blow the whole thing up.

One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that Pennsylvania is a failed state. We can’t pave our roads — as an example, the Rt. 926 Bridge project over the Brandywine is in danger of indefinite delay because another nearby bridge on Birmingham Road had to be immediately closed because it was in danger of immediate failure (the result of decades of poor maintenance). We’re doing a lousy job of educating our kids — at least that’s what the testing suggests — and we’ve stretched and stripped down the State Police to a ridiculous state.

Even after four years with a Republican Governor — Tom Corbett — and a Republican House and Senate, common sense reforms such as liquor privatization, pension reforms and a fair system of funding public schools were impossible. I’ll note that it would have been similarly impossible with Democrats in control. The current mess is not a function of partisan wrangling — the gears of state government no longer work.

And that’s the point. Pennsylvania under it’s current Constitution can no longer function.

It is well beyond time to call a constitutional convention and start over. We can and must do better.

Obviously, whatever came out of such a convention would have to be a compromise, but were I able to make a pitch, here’s my fixes:

First and foremost: we need to fix the legislature.

Broken, bought off and filled with lifers, the House in particular is a dysfunctional mess.

How to fix it: double the number of members.

I’ll allow you a moment to process that concept — much of the reform argument has been to slash the number of state representatives, but that would be a tactical error.

I would double the number to 401, make all of them part time, with a fixed salary of $15,000 per year, no benefits, no pensions. No full time staff.

Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars per year of taxpayer savings ($14 million for food, milage and hotel stays alone) — having twice as many members makes it twice as hard for special interests to lobby (and bribe) members. Throw in some campaign contribution limits and a total ban on gifts, and we’d go a long way to putting the legislature back to work for the people, rather than the bevy of special interests, right and left, that pull the strings right now and get all of the goodies.

As for the Senate: I’d go with something a bit wackier: one senator for each county. Yes, I know this means that Philadelphia and Allegheny counties would be woefully under represented, but it would put and end to Gerrymandering and give equal voice to all parts of the commonwealth.

Senators would make $20,000. No staff. No benefits.

Budget provisions: budgets must be approved by June 30, with a one-month extension granted by petition to the state Supreme Court. After that, all members and the governor must stay in Harrisburg 24/7 on a 15-minute recall, at their own expense, to pass and sign a budget. That provision alone would guarantee no budget ever going beyond July 30.

Education: the state must fund public education at 50%. Any school district receiving any public funds must be overseen by a duly elected board of directors, whether standard public or charter school. Public tax monies must be overseen by elected officials. Always, unless taxation without representation no longer means anything.

Taxes: It’s well past time that the state implement a progressive income tax, some of which would help to pay for properly funding schools and taking the burden of education taxation off property owners.

Also, tax breaks for corporations would be subject to public hearings for renewal yearly — and cannot exceed $200 million per company.

Those are my thoughts. What about you? Is it time to start over? What changes would you make?

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One Comment

  1. Voice of Reason says:

    “””I would double the number to 401, make all of them part time, with a fixed salary of $15,000 per year, no benefits, no pensions. No full time staff.”””””

    They are already “part time.” And look what they do. If you doubled the number to 401, it would just be a matter of time before 401 of them would make more money that those in the private sector that pay their outlandish salaries. They work in their own best interests first.

    Term limits are the answer. This would rid the state of the “lifers” that create a culture like the one we have now.

    Slash the number of state reps. Make them part time (officially), pay them $15,000 per year with no staff.

    This is not rocket science. They mumbo jumbo it all up to make you think it is to justify this huge budget and outlandish salaries.

    Look at the school district budgets. It’s exactly the same. Look where the money goes. 100% of tax increases go to pay ballooning PSER’s obligations to cover pensions for District employees who will make more money in their retirement years than they make in their working careers.

    A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have. Thomas Jefferson

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