Rendell Proposes Big State Government Reforms

Governor Rendell has proposed some pretty big reforms in the way Harrisburg functions. And, given the environment, some might even pass:

Limit campaign contributions. Expand access to government records. Set term limits for lawmakers. Shrink the legislature. Change the way legislative districts are drawn. Choose judges through a "merit" system instead of electing them.

These were among the far-reaching proposals Rendell presented yesterday as a way, he said, to restore the "public's trust" after the uproar over the 2005 legislative pay raise, and more recent revelations of lavish legislative bonuses and exorbitant spending by the state's college loan agency.

Things are crazy in Harrisburg right now, with legislators really heeding the call to clean up the way the system works. And now, these proposals will not magically end poverty or something, but they will go a long way to restoring a little bit of trust in State Government.

I also liked this part:

His voice rising, his fist pounding the dais, Rendell said that if lawmakers were true "citizen soldiers," Pennsylvania might finally be able to enact a law halting straw purchases of handguns.

Speaking on a day when Philadelphia recorded its third gun killing in 24 hours, Rendell said that if lawmakers' terms were limited, they might be less fearful of the gun lobby and more likely to support a long-stalled proposal to limit handgun purchases to one a month.

In other words, from the guy who was tried everything- including partnerships with the NRA- the only way we get gun control in Philly is structural reforms in how the system works, to lessen the impacts of special interests. The other ideas- campaign finance, merit selection of judges and others are also things I think are flat out good ideas. (And, if we has merit selections of judges, it would mean Judge Jones, who is about to have to raise millions for a statewide raise, would already be appointed to the Court.)

Consider this: We have some of the worst sunshine laws in the Country. We have zero campaign finance. We force judges to raise seven figures, before they are supposed to be impartial. This is the kind of stuff that if changed would be really positive. (The merit selection of judges, of course, is not going to happen.)

I agree with much of

I agree with much of Rendell's proposal. But, I strongly disagree with shrinking the size of the legislature. I think it will have the opposite effect and will lead to even more difficulty in having as much a democractic process as we should.

Sort of agree

I would leave the Senate the way it is. And, I don't have a problem with the size of the legislature in general, anyway.

But, I would trade shrinking it if, and this is a big if, that money was poured into staffing up the State Reps. They have really small staffs, which I think leads to little creative policy, and having special interests telling you how to vote- since you cannot have read many of the bills anyway.

Either way, I think we get better government if we had more staffers in the State House.

More Staffers

It would certainly go a long way towards plugging Rep. Mark Cohen's argument that state reps can't push political reform and progressive social policy at the same time.

Great comment.

Seriously, I'm sitting here laughing out loud.

I wonder what Rep. Cohen thinks about this????

I'm not sure about shrinking

I'm not sure about shrinking the legislature, and I think nonpartisan elections for judges would be better than no elections at all. But I was particularly impressed by this:

Legislative reapportionment

Creates a nine-member "citizens commission" to draw district lines, with one member appointed by the governor, one by each legislative caucus, and four by the state Supreme Court.

And this:

Most of Rendell's proposals would require amending the state constitution - which means bills must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then be placed on the ballot for approval by voters. Rendell wants the proposals to become law by the 2012 election.

Rendell seems to be doing what he wants the legislature to do -- using the leverage of his own term limits to pass the right kinds of legislative reform.

Let's see if it works. Now all Rendell needs to do is drop his plan to raise the sales tax, and I would love him all over again.

Rendell Plans Have Tradeoffs Reducing or Eliminating Their Value

The various Rendell "reform" plans position him to do what he likes to do best--occupy the entire the entire political spectrum all at once. At the same time as he is pushing a big spending agenda designed to help solve social problems that liberals really care about, he is actively challenging Joe Lieberman for the honor of being considered the most conservative northern Democrat in America.

Anyone who believes that the problem facing government today is that there are too many opportunities for public participation should love the Rendell plans. It makes Tom Knox or someone else with his personal financial resources the frontrunner for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, promises no more voting on judicial elections with competing candidates, far fewer full time legislators attending community meetings, blogging, and otherwise deeply engaging with the citizenry, and far fewer experienced legislative staff people with deep roots in issues and advocacy.

All citizens fed up with the burdens of having too much power, having individual legislators and legislative bodies too attentive to your needs and wants, should enthusiastically embrace this package.

My view is that citizens simply do not have enough power today, and that legislative bodies are not responsive enough. I see the Rendell package as giant step in the opposite direction of where we should be going. I believe the legislature will reject the vast majority of it, and that those people who do not want a government of the wealthy special interests, by the wealthy special interests, and for the wealthy special interests should do likewise.


Rep. Cohen, your post title suggests that there are bad "tradeoffs" in Rendell's plan, suggesting that some things that are good about it might be offset by some things that aren't so good. But in your post, you spend most of your time just trashing the plan, particularly for the possible negative consequences that it might have on elections.

Could you spell out what proposals (if any) you like and what specific proposals you dislike?

More $ For Rendell Than All Legislative Candidates Combined

In 2006, Ed Rendell received far more dollars in campaign contributions than did all legislative candidates in the state of Pennsylvania combined. His "reform" package demonstrates that his contributors generally did not waste their money.

These proposals are full of idealistic sentiment to please readers here and others. I like idealism. I prefer, though, the kind of idealism that leads to changes that the benefit the average citizen and the people who most need governmental help.

As Paul Wellstone said, the rich and powerful have plenty of powerful lobbyists to represent their interests. He praised their competence and diligence in representing their clients. But he added, "I represent the little fellers, not the Rockefellers."

All of the Rendell backed reform package are initiated by powerful corporate interests: big media, Fortune 500 corporations and the law firms that represent them.

Expanded open records serve the interests of media conglomerates. Rendell said on Monday night that his administration is now legally obligated under current law to honor half of the open records that he receives. In addition, his administration honors half of those that he is not required under current law to honor.

He has yet to offer a compelling explanation of why his administration chooses not to honor half of those requests he is not required to honor, and how his legislation will create a new legal obligation to force his people to do what they can do already. Obviously, Rendell's own people believe there are compelling privacy interests against honoring some media requests. I eagerly await a public airing as to why requests for information by the media were rejected by the Rendell administration.

"Merit" selection of judges depends on who is deciding what "merit" is. Law school graduates tend to gravitate towards the best paying jobs they can get. The greater one's GPA, and the tougher the admission standards to get into one's law school, the better the chance of spending one's lifetime representing the interests of the wealthy. Unfortunately, the interests of the wealthy at times conflict with the interests of tenants, borrowers, dependent spouses, beneficiaries of governmental aid, customers, row home owners, employees, blue collar workers, pensioneers, etc.

A system which rewards those who have the best legal credentials is a system which disproportionately rewards those who have spent their careers representing corporate interests--sometimes against other corporations, sometimes against governments, but all too frequently against the average citizen or the citizen with less than average resources.

Limiting campaign contributions without creating exemptions to the limits when wealthy candidates appear spending their own money, as Rendell proposes, basically turns government positions over to the wealthy. I know that there is no guarantee that Tom Know will be elected Mayor of Philadelphia, but I would not recommend anyone here bet a lot of money that he will not win, especially if the other four major candidates all stay in the race and split up the vote.

Having legislative term limits, cutting the size of the legislature, and losing legislative control of redistricting sends the message to legislators that the legislative job has to be a part-time one, because the average person without great financial resources needs the security of a job for the long haul. The power of a constituency over a legislator is far less for a short-term part-time job than for a full-time long-term job. The real power over the legislator will lie in the employers who pay the long-term private salaries.

In short, I support none of his proposals in total. I could support some version of expanded open records and some version of campaign finance reform, but it is likely not a version that would be Rendell's first choice. I could also support expanding the legal qualifications of judges, but that is not something the Bar Association supports. They want to be able to support the inexperienced people of their choice no less than do some political leaders at some times.

Labels such as "reform" or "progressive" can be somewhat complex or confusing. The question is whose interests is one representing. I am representing the interests of the average citizen and the public as a whole. Rendell is not.

His pushing of this package will encourage far more intense scrutiny of the rest of his legislative package for the forseeable future.

Point by point

Open records: I buy that open records can make for juicy TV and newspaper gossip. But the news media looking at records can also serve the public good, and I would say the public interest here outweighs the potential for abuse. And the public has a funny way of deciding what they do or don't care about for themselves. For someone who supports the "little fellers," you sometimes seem not to think very highly of their critical ability, at least when television is involved.

Merit selection of judges: So, the reason why lawyers work for small clients, unions, or in the public interest is because they got bad grades and couldn't do any better? Ouch. Still, there isn't any reason why "merit" only has to mean your LSAT scores -- the nomination and selection process also could and should include some questions about competence and experience in all kinds of work. It's not all Anthony Gonzalezes out there -- the federal system gets some good ones, and when they put up bad ones, there's a fierce fight about it, on which public opinion definitely weighs in. And if a whole bunch of tenants-rights lawyers and other Jimmy Stewart types were getting judgeships now, I don't think there'd be much sentiment for change.

Campaign contributions: Again, I don't see a world where millionaires are tripping over themselves to become state representatives. Governors and mayors, sure. But as you've reminded us, your job is tough and not especially rewarding. You certainly would be treated with more deference if you were a CEO.

Would you support campaign finance if it included a millionaires' exemption? Again, I think the concern now is that the "little fellers" aren't shelling out thousands of dollars for campaigns -- major lobbying interests are. And while that might make it tougher for unions and other Dem standbys to pump money in for candidates, it also removes questions of conflict-of-interest and might break some of the influence of the NRA and other unprogressive groups. So I will take it, as I will take candidates who can raise lots of little donations to replace the handful of big ones.

I think a twelve-year limit would be better than an eight-year one. But still, a candidate can work for thirty or forty years, get elected state rep, serve four terms, get elected state senator, serve two, then run either for office in the federal government or for city council positions, mayor, serve in an appointed post, or find plenty of other ways to spend the rest of their lives in public service. Ultimately, term limits may hurt parties and the legislature as a whole more than they hurt individual candidates -- when the public gets fed up with shenanigans, poor performance, or whatever, they want to throw the bums out. This is what causes wholesale turnover -- which really hurts candidates in swing districts, who tend to be moderates. If we had new and different bums running every few years, it would be easier for them to campaign on their own merits and positions and not have to answer for everything that had been done in the past.

I am not confused about what reform or progressive mean at all. We might disagree about what specific actions to take, and how we see the world. But it would be easier for us regular, average citizens, and the public as a whole, to believe that their representatives represent their interest if these representatives took steps to demonstrate the legitimacy of that claim, and if we could evaluate that based on all available information. You think that will make us dumber, or play to our dumbness. But some of us do not agree.

A Difference Between Possibility and Likelihood

Everything is possible. If someone told me than 100 Martians had landed in the state capitol building and wanted to meet with me, I would be highly skeptical but I would not say that is totally impossible. I would remember Judge Gerry Kosinski's joke about Martians: when they land on earth, the first words of their leader will be "Where's Vince?"

Believing in the possibility of Martians, I have no doubt that it is possible that some incidential benefits may fall to average citizens from policies designed to benefit the wealthiest among us. But my preference remains to seek out policies designed to benefit the average citizen and the poor. It is fine with me if there are some incidental benefits there for the wealthy.

Anything is possible. But my unromantic, lawyerly, common sense inclination is to go beyond what is possible and ask what is likely. I do not, for instance, put on my personal calendar time for meeting with Martians.

There is nothing wrong with the word "conservative." I think dialogue generally would be a lot more productive if people who agree with conservative positions would identify themselves as such instead going through the gyrations of arguing how big-money, well-informed interest groups with decades of experience and vast expertise in the political process are continually advocating policies that really help those whose interests are often diametrically opposed to theirs.

So... an informed electorate

So... an informed electorate making their own decisions with the help of a critical news media and public advocacy organizations is at the probability level of a Martian invasion. But a world where, say, Tom Knox spends millions of dollars to beat Mark Cohen so he can spend eight years at the lowest rung of elected government in Harrisburg and try to round up votes for tax cuts to the mega-rich -- that's likely. (Apparently, so is the world where Mark Cohen couldn't convince his district that he was the best candidate and beat Tom Knox in an election.)

Again, I think this underscores that we fundamentally see the world differently. And I don't think you've made your case as to why reform proposals will help the wealthy in an absolute sense, not even a comparative one. Couldn't Tom Knox buy a candidate now? For what he's paying to run for mayor, couldn't he buy ten?

I don't understand your last paragraph about conservatives at all. Dialogue generally would be a lot more productive if people said what they meant instead of going through the gyrations, instead of saying that anyone who advocates reform is either a crypto-conservative or a complete idiot.

Let's Be Clear About Who Is Advocating What

I am not advocating taking away people's right to vote for judges. You are.

I am not advocating limiting people's right to contribute to a candidate to get across a candidate's message when opposed by a multimillionaire. You are.

I am not advocating reducing the total number of elected legislative officials the public has a right to vote for. You are.

I am not advocating making elections for the legislature more expensive. You are.

I am not advocating taking legislators out of areas where they are known and making them run in areas where are unknown so that it costs more money to run. You are.

I seek to limit the influence of money in politics. I am disturbed that other attempts to limit the influence of money in politics such as the Philadelphia City Council ordinance have in fact increased the influence of money in politics and helped convert Tom Knox from a longshot to the frontrunner. I am not interested in doing something similar at a state level to elect some other currently unknown multimillionaire.

No multimillionaires want to serve in the legislature, you say? Vince Fumo is Exhibit A to the contrary, Connie Williams is Exhibit B, and there are others. The larger we make the districts, the more obstacles we create to funding campaigns of non wealthy persons, the more obstacles we create to serving on a full-time basis, the more we are going to create a legislature and a political system where great personal wealth is the key qualification for service.

Kenney's Bill should have passed!

I agree with most points your making. Unfortunately, most people on this site cried fowl when Jim Kenney tried to reign in this multimillionaire with his TV ads.

Now, most polls have him in 1st place, and the Tribute shows him with a substantial amount of the African American vote.

Why? Because he has been able to flood TV with ads, he has intimidated the other candidates from attacking him (due to his money), and he's putting money on the street and everywhere he can.

Money talks, and maybe the folks here at YPP are starting to figure out that letting one candidate spend unlimited money that he loaned to his campaign, while putting everyone else under tight restrictions is not only unfair, it's dangerous!

Who are you arguing against?

I am not advocating taking away people's right to vote for judges. You are.

That's not true. Read back in this and other threads -- I advocate nonpartisan elections for judges. I explicitly voiced this reservation about the elimination of judicial elections when I first commented on Rendell's proposals.

I also asked you if you would support the measure if it included a millionaire's exemption -- you didn't answer the question. I would support either an exemption or some other way to level the playing field. (Public financing -- hey hey!)

I didn't mention it explicitly, but I'm an agnostic about reducing the legislature.

I am not advocating making elections for the legislature more expensive. You are.

I am not advocating taking legislators out of areas where they are known and making them run in areas where are unknown so that it costs more money to run. You are.

These are also debatable, to say the least. I'd be interested to hear your argument as to why campaigns would be more expensive. It's not as though term limits and no campaign finance necessarily reduce campaign spending. Vince Fumo ran against a nobody a few years ago and bought almost as many television ads as John Kerry. And legislators always move up, and always run partly in areas where they are unknown, and they don't seem to have a problem with it -- it's called campaigning, and serving a broader constituent base. State Reps and Senators become U.S. reps all the time, building on their bases and extending them. This is a good thing. And the opposite -- that incumbents should always have an advantage -- isn't an earned privilege. Incumbents and those holding public office will always have an advantage over outsiders anyways, and could be re-elected three times under Rendell's plan. This is not a genuine hardship. Unless the "regular folks" you work for really just include career politicians.

As for your examples of millionaires in the state legislature, it just reinforces my position, not yours. The status quo does nothing to stop the Vince Fumos and Connie Williams. Again, if the existing system were functional, we would not have a problem. The real problem is legislators like Vince Fumo and party officials like Carol Campbell who use their offices to create wealth for themselves. Tom Knox aside, the millionaire candidate is a red herring. I would take Jon Corzine over Vince Fumo any day of the week.

Ultimately, the only thing I'm advocating is that you and your colleagues keep your noses clean, and work a little harder to keep your jobs. Your position is that the only people who can do any of these things are millionaires and Republicans. Not only do you sell your constituents short, you sell the party short.

Mark, your proposal is WHAT?

Your proposal is WHAT?


Whatever it is it apparently

Whatever it is it apparently includes gerrymandered districts, unfettered money in the system, and statewide elections of judges that force them to fund raise 7 figure amounts, which to me (this is going to sound crazy) doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Mark, give us some real solutions. If all you can do is tell us how terrible all these reforms are, you are just defending the status quo of one of the least open states, with some of the worst drawn districts, with zero regulations of money.

I would like to respectfully

I would like to respectfully incorporate by reference a previous discussion on here were Rep. Cohen said you can either reform the system for fight poverty--not both.

I think it is pretty clear that the status quo is fine as it ensures employment for many.

Public Financing Without Limits Is The Real Solution

Public financing of elections without limiting campaign spending--the matching with public funds of private campaigns, plus the giving of all candidates who meet an agreed upon test of public support some base amount of funds depending upon the size of the constituency--is the ultimate solution.

The question is whether non right-wingers have the political will to fight for this, or will be content to allow the right wing to dictate anti-democratic psuedo-solutions such as reducing the number of elections and reducing middle class participation in politics.

The whole reason to be concerned about big money in politics is because it empowers the wealthy and disempowers everyone else. I do not believe it is a step forward to take this right-wing goal and achieve it by some other means. Our goal should be more public participation in choosing governmental leaders and not less.

Cautious Agreement

(Shakes Rep. Cohen's hand.)

(Walks away.)

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content