Last year at this time, Pennsylvanians were filled with hope for big changes in state government coming to pass in 2007. Who could blame them? After replacing an astonishing 55 legislators, all signs pointed to movement in the direction of reform. But the great "Year of Reform" turned out to be mostly a bust.Admittedly, there was some progress. Internal rules changes were made in both chambers of the General Assembly. The Senate performed the task rather effortlessly while the House took a few months of deliberation. Those rules can be suspended, however, and as soon as it's expedient for members to do so, they will be suspended.
An effort was made to craft a new open records law, a process that is not yet complete. The House and Senate versions differ, which means that those differences must be hammered out, likely in a conference committee. Pennsylvanians should play very close attention, as a conference committee is where good bills can be transformed into bad bills (think: pay raise). Even without any shenanigans, the proposed legislation is barely better than what we had before in some areas and falls short of giving us the most transparent government in the nation.
Nothing else has been accomplished on the reform front, though. Newspaper editors, pundits, journalists and citizens are asking: Why? The answer is quite simple: There has been no movement on serious structural reforms in Harrisburg because elected folks don't want serious structural reforms. They like things just the way they are.
We can't blame the freshman class entirely. Although some of them appear to have been sucked into the Incumbent Protection Plan and business-as-usual, most of them are still wet behind the ears and frustrated. And let's not forget that there are only 55 of them, hardly a majority among 253 members.
We can't entirely blame leadership, either. Their job is to do what the rest of the membership wants them to do. If they don't follow the will of the membership, they won't be in leadership for very long. If a majority of members were actually pushing for reform, leadership would certainly be obliging them.
In the legislature, most of the blame lies at the feet of those who have been there for a few terms but are not yet in positions of leadership. If they really wanted reform, we'd have it already. They could have bridged the gap between freshmen and the leadership to point Pennsylvania in the right direction. But they haven't.
The Governor dropped the ball as well. Although at one time he touted a reform agenda, he's been silent on the issue ever since. One would think that a governor in his second term would understand that creating a better system of government is a positive legacy that could last for decades to come.
Some have claimed that 2008 will be a better year for reform. Considering it's an election year for over 90 percent of the General Assembly, however, it's hard to believe that systemic reform will be at the top of anyone's agenda. Let's face it: For many legislators, this is the best job they've ever had and they will focus most of their energy on keeping it.
Perhaps, though, that is the key to obtaining actual reform. If legislators consider getting re-elected their primary objective, then the people of Pennsylvania should make structural reform an election issue. Whether our favorite reform is term limits, the size of the legislature, part-time status for members, redistricting or the holy grail of structural reform - a constitutional convention - Pennsylvanians should begin extracting promises now from candidates seeking elective seats in 2008.
Additionally, those legislators who promised reform as part of their electoral bid in 2006 should be asked what they have done to make it happen. How many reform bills did they introduce or cosponsor? How many meetings did they have with colleagues on reform issues? How many phone calls did they make on behalf of reform? What will they do for reform if re-elected? Exactly which particular reforms do they support?
It truly is a simple equation: When the people clamor for reform via phone calls, letters, visits to their legislators and electoral pressure, candidates who wish to get elected will also support reform. Once elected, continued pressure will make it happen.
Pennsylvania will only get structural reform when Pennsylvanians demand it. It didn't happen in 2007 because the people didn't focus on specific changes during the 2006 election cycle. Demanding specific reforms in 2008 is the only way to move us closer to actually getting those reforms.