Within the last month, two state legislators began the process of circulating a proposal that would create a limited state constitutional convention as a way to expedite state government reforms in Pennsylvania.
The identical proposals – currently sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair) and Rep. Steve Bloom (R-Cumberland) – model their “limited convention” after the 1967 state constitutional convention that focused on government structure and reform.
“As was the case in the mid-20th century, the calls for reform to state government are steadily rising. Citizens are increasingly concerned about the size, cost and inefficiency of their government – issues brought to the fore by chronic criminal scandals, serial credit downgrades and spiraling pension debts – but also by disturbing patterns of insider dealing and rampant crony capitalism. Special interests continue to push unrestrained government spending, unaffordable taxes and job-killing overregulation. And loopholes in budgetary oversight have fostered a troubling climate of fiscal mismanagement and weak accountability,” the lawmakers wrote in a recent co-sponsorship memo seeking support for their proposal from other legislators before formal legislation is introduced. “Unfortunately, major reform has always been difficult to accomplish in Pennsylvania – it’s slow and incremental, and rarely successfully makes its way through the entire General Assembly.”
According to the proposal, should it be adopted, the question of whether to hold such a convention would be put on the ballot asking for voter approval to begin the process of starting the limited constitutional convention.
If it wins a majority vote, a preparatory committee would begin the process of dealing with the logistical arrangements.
The convention would be made up of 163 delegates, with 150 of those coming from three delegates per state senatorial district and 13 ex officio state legislators.
The scope of the convention, as proposed by the authorizing document, would not allow the convention to offer changes to the state’s Declaration of Rights. It would be further limited by being able to only make recommendations specifically on term limits for legislators, the size of the General Assembly, legislator compensation, how legislation can be amended, when it’s appropriate to authorize a no-bid contract, whether to allow spending without an enacted budget, changes to the Office of Lieutenant Governor, and changes to the Judiciary.
Any recommendation by the convention would need to have majority approval of delegates before being placed on the ballot for voter approval.
Bloom said he believes the time is ripe for this proposal given the number of reform-oriented issues the General Assembly is constantly trying to address.
“There are so many issues that have been steadily in the background and intensifying even over the last seven years I’ve been involved in state government,” he said. “There’s so much going on that it seemed like a lot of these things – we nip around the edges and nip around the edges – but we never address them square on.”
He noted part of the problem is a lack of legislative desire that could be spurred on by a citizens’ initiative.
“That might be the impetus to get a set of sweeping changes,” he said.
He added that the idea of turning the reforms over the general public might have the unanticipated benefit of helping to spur on stalled legislative changes that would be examined by the convention.
“It might increase the pressure on the General Assembly to do something itself rather than allow it to be at the mercy of the public, which might be more harsh on the Legislature than the Legislature would be itself,” he said. “It may create constructive pressure on the House and Senate as bodies to be more aggressive with efforts to reform ourselves than rather than be subject [to a convention].”
Eichelberger took a more cynical view, noting the convention is needed since, in his experience, the General Assembly has shown an extreme lack of willingness to tackle significant reform issues.
“There’s not the will to do those things; there just isn’t,” he said. “Some people philosophically don’t agree with it – they like things the way they are. Then you have a lot of people that are more protective of their jobs than they are at looking at what’s best for the citizens of the state, so we have to get beyond that.”
He said an independently elected citizens’ body is the best way to achieve the sweeping reforms that are needed.
“We’ve been suffering through a lot of problems that are getting a lot of attention that I don’t think the Legislature and the governor can fix,” he added. “We don’t have the political will, we don’t have the broader vision to do it. We’re mired in day-to-day and election cycle-to-election cycle decisions. We’re not getting things done.”
Currently, neither proposal has been formally introduced in either chamber and each is in the process of gaining support in the form of co-sponsors.
In the House, Bloom reported 11 members have signed on – a significant number, he noted, since he has not actively shopped the bill around yet. Eichelberger guessed that his legislation already has a half-dozen co-sponsors and he anticipates reform-minded organizations will likely help with the push to get broader support for the proposals.
From this stage, the bill would need to be formally introduced in each chamber and then referred to an appropriate committee for action.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.