(By Tim Potts, Democracy Rising) This year the capitol witnessed lawmakers “kicking the can” twice on important issues. One of them, postponing the crisis in thestate employee and school employee pension funds, has received a lot of attention. The crisis began in 2001 when the legislature and former Gov. Tom Ridge raided the state employee pension fund to give lawmakers a 50% increase in their pension benefits.
The other is more obscure. It is the failure of the Senate Ethics Committee to address the illegal and allegedly illegal conduct of its members. The most recent example is the committee’s refusal for more than two years to take action on charges that retiring Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna, has conflicts of interest arising from his position on various boards of directors and renting his district office from himself.
Rock the Capital’s Eric Epstein recently filed his third request with the Senate Ethics Committee after two previous attempts failed. See Nagging conflicts of interest for Senator Mellow . Like the House, the Senate has taken no action against its members during four years of criminal investigations and convictions, demonstrating that the General Assembly cannot police itself for the benefit of citizens.
A Constitution convention could make two recommendations for voters to approve or reject. Neither is something that lawmakers have shown any willingness to do by stand-alone amendment.
With respect to lawmaker pensions, the Constitution allows lawmakers to get only salary and mileage. That’s it. See Article II, Section 8. Since pensions are compensation but are neither salary nor mileage, some believe lawmaker pensions violate the Constitution. A convention can recommend changing the Constitution to permit pensions for lawmakers, or it can recommend explicitly prohibiting them. With a PA Supreme Court that can’t seem to understand the meaning of “no other compensation whatever, whether for service upon committee or otherwise,” a convention recommendation is the only course of action available to citizens to decide once and for all.
With respect to allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers, a Constitution convention can recommend creating an independent agency to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in all three branches of government as well as prosecution, if warranted. Or a convention can recommend a more rigorous and transparent internal process for government agencies that police themselves.
Citizens should be able to accomplish this with an ordinary law, such as the proposal for a Public Integrity Commission by Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester. However, such a law is almost certain to be challenged as violating the independence of each branch of government.
When lawmakers refuse to decide such important issues, it’s time to let the people decide. The way to do that is with a Constitution convention that can recommend changes for voters to accept or reject at a referendum. But first, lawmakers have to put the question on the ballot in November 2011.
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