The Lincoln Institute's most recent Keystone Business Climate Survey found just 16% of employers in Penn's Woods held a positive view of the state House of Representatives, only 14% thought kindly of the job being done by the state Senate. Those numbers are reflective of the low esteem in which the public at-large views the commonwealth's legislative branch.
Eight years of missing budget deadlines, a growing fiscal crisis and rampant corruption have soured citizens on state government. To its credit, the new General Assembly that took office earlier this year has balanced the budget — and done so on time. Further the state Attorney General's office has made significant and commendable progress in cleaning up legislative corruption.
Complete validation of former Attorney General, now Governor Tom Corbett's Bonusgate and capitol corruption scandal probes came with the plea bargain entered into by former House Speaker John Perzel. Perzel was, at one time, the 800-pound gorilla of state politics. He ruled the House with an iron hand and ruthlessly destroyed, or attempted to destroy, anyone who opposed him.
He is now headed for federal prison.
Perzel and his minions have now admitted guilt in spending millions of taxpayer dollars on projects whose main purpose was to elect enough subservient Republicans to the legislature to retain a majority and preserve Perzel's power. He didn't do it alone, some 25 individuals have been charged with corruption and to date 15 have either been convicted or copped a plea. The other 10 — including former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, a Democrat — await trail.
Lord Acton said: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That saying, first uttered in 1887 is as true today as it was then. John Perzel arrived from Philadelphia as the unlike winner of his House seat in 1979. He would go on to serve 16 terms before losing his seat last November in what was otherwise a tidal wave election year for Republicans. Perzel rose from humble beginnings, he worked as a maître d' for a Philadelphia restaurant. He quickly lost touch with the average voter, once complaining that tattoo artists made more money than state representatives. Perzel last surfaced during the recent state budget debate, arguing for higher taxes at a time when his party was firmly against adding to the tax burden of families and businesses in the midst of an economic recession.
Perzel's story is a stunning tale of a fall from power. It should serve as a lesson to those who are in the General Assembly today. Despite the recent scandals there remain in power those who feel they are entitled to their jobs. They believe they are there to be courted, rather than to serve. While such legislators and senators are not guilty of legal corruption, they have indeed corrupted and perverted the governmental process having fallen victim to Lord Acton's admonition.
It is, however, important not to paint all members of the General Assembly with the same brush. The positive effect of Bonusgate and the capitol corruption scandals has been to bring about a house cleaning of sorts. Numerous incumbent Republicans have been defeated in primaries, and long-serving Democrats washed out in last year's wave election that favored the GOP. Most of these new lawmakers are keenly aware of the circumstances which brought them to Harrisburg and are pushing for change. But, given the leadership driven top-down nature of Pennsylvania's legislative bodies, change will be slow in coming.
But come it must. For starters, Pennsylvania should return to the part-time citizen legislature envisioned by our Founding Fathers. Forget about arguments that today's complex society requires a full-time legislature. It does not.
Texas, a much larger — and more economically successful state — operates with a part-time legislature. To our south, Maryland has legislative sessions that last but 90 days each year. Truth be told, Pennsylvania's legislative sessions occupy about the same amount of time, but are spread out with two or three day work weeks and lengthy recesses. For example, the General Assembly recessed the end of June and is not scheduled to return to session until late September, almost a three month break.
The fall of John Perzel and convictions in the corruption scandals are but a necessary first step in cleaning up the mess in Harrisburg. As in the aftermath of a flood, the Attorney General's office has moped up, but the task of rebuilding and reforming lies ahead.
(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.)
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