Legislative reform a time-consuming process

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The special state House commission that changed some of the House's secretive ways of operating in just two months could find it will take years to implement its next wave of reforms.

The Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform held its first hearing in Pittsburgh on the second phase of its work, which will concentrate on the state's open records law, campaign financing, the size of the Legislature and whether there should be term limits for legislators. The commission expects to make recommendations in June, but because any changes will require constitutional amendments or new laws, the reforms could be years away.

In its first phase, the House simply voted to change its operating rules to make amending a bill a more open process, end sessions by 11 p.m. and provide easier access to legislative spending records.

Although more than a dozen speakers yesterday had nearly as many different ideas on what form changes should take, Commission Co-Chairman Josh Shapiro said he doesn't expect the commission to have any problem reaching a consensus. It's important for recommendations to be sent to committees by June so the House can act on them during its current session and forward them to the Senate.

Any constitutional changes would require approval in two sessions of the Legislature and by a voters' referendum. The earliest a referendum could occur would be 2009.

"We have a significant wind at our back for reform," said Mr. Shapiro, D-Montgomery. "Reform does not happen overnight, but for the first time in a long time, the debate is happening. For the first time in a long time, we have a track record of getting things done."

Four House members who testified at the hearing didn't agree on the types of reforms that are needed.

Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Mount Pleasant, has been trying to reduce the size of the Legislature since he took office in 1977. His latest bill calls for reducing the House from 203 members to 151 and the Senate from 50 to 40.

"I don't know what the final number is going to be ... but I do think the time is right that we take action," he said.

Suzanne Broughton of the League of Women Voters of Western Pennsylvania said her organization also has been pushing for a smaller Legislature since the 1970s.

Rep. David Levdansky, D- Forward, wants to limit contributions by individuals and organizations and increase reporting requirements for candidates but he doesn't want any part of term limits. He and Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, agreed that voters take care of legislators who aren't performing for their districts.

Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview, called for contribution limits through an independent reapportionment bureau to draw new district lines after the 2010 census to take politics out of the process.

Commission members Don Walko, D-North Side, and Kathy Manderino, D-Philadelphia, expressed concerns about term limits. Ms. Manderino said term limits "throw out the good with the bad."

Additional hearings will be held Thursday in Philadelphia and April 27 in Harrisburg.

State House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, appointed the 24-member, bipartisan commission in January in response to a public outcry over the House amending bills with little public or member input during sessions that dragged past midnight.

Ed Blazina can be reached at eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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