Over the holiday weekend, Pennsylvania State Representative Paul Drucker made a foray in to the world of local journalism. Coming on the heels of a statewide grand jury report which detailed reform proposals in the Commonwealth, was an article by Rep. Drucker discussing legislative reform policy which appeared in the May 30th edition of the Daily Local newspaper. (see complete article below).
I completely support Rep. Drucker’s appeal to terminate or at least drastically reduce taxpayer-funded political caucuses. As a start, I would appreciate the imposing of tougher ethics practices and the halt of all payments and benefits to staffers on leave to campaigns and ban compensatory time. If lasting reform is to be recognized in the Commonwealth, the polarization of party politics in Harrisburg needs to end.
Several months ago in Community Matters, I wrote about our state representatives usage of per diem (Pennsylvania legislators can use tax-free per diems for home purchase . . . what about taxability issues for fraud issues?)amounting to $155+/day and its ‘use’ considered a ‘legal perk’ of the job. Some Pennsylvania state legislators are using tax-free per diems as a means of financing real estate purchases. Annually, Pennsylvania taxpayers finance approximately $2.7 million in reimbursed per diems for our elected officials. Previously, I have voiced my concern to Rep Drucker in regards to what I view as misuse of per diems by some of our legislators (although seemingly legal); I am pleased to read that Rep. Drucker supports reform in this area. I would like to see the per diem payments to lawmakers stopped, or at least tied to actual expenses. Why should the taxpayers finance tax-free per diems for home purchases by our legislators?
The inherent problem is that any changes in Harrisburg require legislative approval and I’m betting that the legislature is in no rush to address these reforms. It is good to know that our own state representative supports change; and is willing to take a stand on behalf of Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Everybody Knows Reforms Are Needed
By PAUL DRUCKER, Guest Columnist
It is a sad day when it takes a grand jury to point out what the rest of us already know — that the state Legislature is in serious need of reform. In case you missed it, the grand jury that has been looking at the Bonusgate scandal for the past two years issued a report this week suggesting some badly needed changes to the way business is done in Harrisburg.
There are many of us who have been saying this for years. In fact, the need to make state government more responsive — and more deserving of the public’s trust — was one of the main reasons I decided to run for the state Legislature. I hope the grand jury recommendations are a wake-up call for those in the Legislature who want to keep things as they are. I personally think that when an impartial group of Pennsylvania citizens speaks about an issue this important, we should listen.
As outlined in a story printed in the Daily Local News this week, there are a number of recommendations made by the grand jury that I believe should be implemented, in order to restore public faith in state government and ensure its efficient functioning. Among these suggestions are:
Reducing the number of state employees. The average number of employees per state legislator is nine employees. I agree that this number is too high. I currently employ three full-time staff members for two offices, and one staff member who only works one day per week. Despite this, in 2009 my office was in the top 15 of constituents served out of all Democratic state representatives.
Fixing the budget process. The state budget process, as we all know, is broken. The lack of line-item control by the rank and file is frustrating and non-productive. The lack of communication between the two caucuses during budget negotiations sets the stage for budget battles and gridlock. As the grand jury recommends, I believe taxpayer-funded political caucuses should either be terminated, or modified drastically to help reduce paralyzing partisan politics.
Reforming discretionary accounts. The problem with these accounts is not the projects that are funded as much as the secretive process. I believe discretionary grant-making should be publicly disclosed, as Congress has done with appropriations earmarks.
The fact that there are separate, taxpayer-funded human resources, information technology and print shops for the Democratic and Republican caucuses is a waste of taxpayer dollars. State legislators’ staff should be employed by the state — not a political caucus. Salaries and job descriptions and all personnel matters should be handled by one state non-partisan office, as should IT support and print and copy needs.
The outdated practice of blanket per-diem payments needs to be modified. It is certainly fair to reimburse legislators when they are required to be in Harrisburg, away from home. I do accept per diem payments when I am required to be in Harrisburg, but I believe I have been prudent and have not abused the system. In addition, I do not use a state car, I do not accept reimbursement for mileage to attend district events (which would amount to a large sum of taxpayer dollars), my staff salary total is in the lower end of all representatives, and my staff has not received any raise in salary since my term began.
In July 2009, I stood with a bipartisan group of legislators and introduced a package of reforms. It included legislation that would require state representatives to pay a percentage of their salary toward their health care costs, redistricting legislation, and a ban on bonuses for all state employees. It also included legislation to create a searchable Web site to track all state legislative expenses over $1,000, and restrict the awarding of contracts that may result in public officials’ financial gain, including the financial gain of family members. These bills are now awaiting action by committees. They are all good ideas, and they need to be enacted into law, but it is unlikely that they will move unless all the members of the General Assembly feel more pressure for reform.
This is why the grand jury report this week is so important, and why we should be thanking them for their work — not dismissing them. Legislative reform must be one of the top priorities in Harrisburg, because important duties, like passing a responsible budget our constituents deserve — cannot be done efficiently until the house has been reformed.
For my part, I will continue to work toward change. I will press my colleagues to act on the package of reforms we introduced last year, and I will support legislation that improves the way Harrisburg works.
(Paul Drucker, of Wayne, represents the 157th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.)