Thirty-three Pennsylvanians have issued an extraordinary blueprint for reform based on their two-year study of the Legislature as members of the grand jury that investigated Bonusgate and other schemes that have perverted state government.
The jurors were ordinary people from all walks of life -- including clerks, supervisors, a teacher, an engineer and a used-car salesperson -- whose initial shock was learning in March 2008 that they'd have to sit as jurors and alternates for at least one week each month for at least 18 months. That shock proved to be nothing contrasted against the tales of abuses of power and taxpayer funds that they would hear as testimony.
During the course of their service, the grand jury issued presentments against 24 individuals associated with the House Democratic and Republican caucuses, including five current or former state representatives, but the members did more.
Grand jurors have the right to ask questions and, in an unprecedented, five-page footnote to a court order, supervising Judge Barry Feudale said this panel focused on what the Legislature was doing and how it hit their own pocketbooks. Beyond the testimony from more than 100 witnesses, they sought information about the process of a constitutional convention, voter referendum, a detailed breakdown of the state budget and an explanation of the grant-making process.
The jurors then used the information they gathered to issue an extraordinary condemnation of the General Assembly and, in particular, its political caucuses and leadership.
Noting that Pennsylvania's Legislature predates the first Continental Congress and quoting Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal, who provided them with a national perspective, the jurors said the General Assembly "exists in a time warp. ... It's still doing what all the states did in the 1950s and 1960s." The legislative system in Pennsylvania erases the lines that separate legitimate government work from politicking. The grand jury dismissed defense arguments that, as it put it, "no one's guilty because everybody does it" and said it "is unaware of any 'time warp' defense to criminal charges."
In arguing that taxpayer-funded political caucuses in the Legislature must end, the grand jury wrote that "taxpayers of Pennsylvania elect individual members to public office, not an amorphous creature called a 'caucus' that consumes resources, is answerable to a select few and delivers no tangible benefits to the taxpayers."
The panel said the budget process that provides the caucuses with lump sums to be doled out by leadership is a practice it said "skews the entire process of representative democracy" in a system that is "rife with the potential for abuse."
The citizens concluded that legislative staffing is excessive, and they provided numerous examples of "disturbing overstaffing" including separate print shops, IT and human resources departments for each House caucus and staffers to help constituents deal with PennDOT, an expensive redundancy intended to make constituents favorably disposed toward their representative and "precisely the type of politically motivated activity that the public should not be forced to fund." (Gov. Ed Rendell, in response to the grand jury, solved part of that problem Tuesday by eliminating the 35-member group of "PennDOT legislative specialists.")
Among its wide-ranging recommendations, the jury said the state should revert to a part-time legislature, which is what the panel said taxpayers are getting anyway. It said the terms of House members should be extended from the current two years to four, so representatives will focus on the job instead of running for it, and that voters should be able to recall them before their terms expire when warranted.
Judge Feudale said the panel won't be satisfied with "non-substantive window dressing and/or sound byte utterances." Neither should Pennsylvania's citizens, who must make lawmakers understand that their days are numbered if they ignore this well-researched demand for change.