Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. Let me begin by stating that the Speaker’s Reform Commission is a step in the right direction and that despite any differences of opinion that may arise, I appreciate your efforts and dedication.
This committee is under direction from the Speaker to address four specific issues at this juncture - open records, campaign finance reform, term limits and the size of the legislature - and I would like to address them all.
Regarding open records, it is very clear in Pennsylvania that access to public records is severely hindered. This is true at every level of government, from the General Assembly to the county level to townships and cities to school districts.
The solution seems very simple to me. Every single record in this Commonwealth, produced at the expense of taxpayer dollars, must be readily available to taxpayers. Other than allowing for the protection of the identities, personal and other sensitive information of certain crime victims and others, there must be a presumption that every document produced by taxpayer dollars is a public record.
I realize there may be some consternation over the expense of providing public records to the public upon request. If we are envisioning some monolithic “Department of Public Records” where citizens must apply in person to obtain whatever particular document they wish to see, such consternation is understandable. But it is also horse-and-buggy thinking.
In the 21st century, we have at our disposal a communications system with which public records can be made available nearly immediately to every one of the Commonwealth’s millions of citizens with access to a computer. If they choose to print out a hard copy, that expense would not be shouldered by government, but by the user. The practice of committing public records to paper form and not converting them to searchable online documents is antiquated, at best.
Every single document generated at the expense of taxpayer dollars, from reviews of letters of interest to the Governor for leasing the turnpike to school district budgets to legislative meetings, must be recorded in searchable electronic form first, and then converted to paper as needed. There is no legitimate reason for any such record to not be presumed a public document or to not be published nearly immediately to the digital realm.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE LIMITS
I am adamantly opposed to any and all notions of campaign finance limits in this Commonwealth. Article I, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
Even if I have 50 million dollars at my disposal - so long as those dollars were earned in a just manner - I must be allowed to use that money to express my political thoughts in any way I deem proper. In no way can anyone reasonably interpret my potential ability to earn or spend more than another individual as an abuse of my liberty of free speech.
Beyond this, one only needs to look at the effects of the McCain-Feingold Act at the federal level to realize that campaign finance limitation efforts are somewhat futile. No matter what limitations or restrictions we attempt to place on campaign finance, smart money will always find its way around them.
Another argument against campaign contribution limits is the results the state legislative elections of 2006. It was only due to the ability of certain candidates to raise funding - under the freedoms of the current system - that the citizens of this Commonwealth were able to upset some of the most entrenched members of the General Assembly.
So long as the current electoral benefits of incumbency remain - and despite the insistent efforts of some members of this committee, they do remain - any effort to curtail campaign contributions will only benefit the incumbent class. If the ultimate goal of this notion is to make elections fairer, then the object of discussion should instead be Pennsylvania’s deliberately unfair election laws.
TERM LIMITS/SIZE OF THE LEGISLATURE
I would like to address term limits and the size of the legislature at the same time. These two ideas might seem to be appealing reforms at first glance, but they’re not panaceas for the current dysfunctions of government. They are both also somewhat narrowly focused tools, in that they prevent us from taking a more holistic look at the structure of government of this Commonwealth, which has not been done for 133 years.
More importantly, both would require fundamental changes to the bedrock of the system of government in this Commonwealth, our Constitution. That document belongs to the people, and only the people should decide whether, or how, it might be improved or altered.
With all due respect, attempting to do so through the regular legislative process, asking 253 members who have distinctly subjective opinions and very personal interests riding on these matters is inappropriate at this time.
When this committee was in the early stages of modifying the rules of the House of Representatives, Chairman Shapiro informally asked another reform activist and me to refrain from judging the process until it was complete. I willingly agreed, but concern or impatience for the process itself was not the reason. I agreed because I believe that those internal rules are for the members to set, for the members to follow and for the members to enforce. As a private citizen, I believe I have no place in that process.
On statutory changes, however, the General Assembly must work with the input of private citizens in order to create sound laws to benefit the Commonwealth as a whole. Prospective open records legislation, campaign finance proposals - whether we agree with them or not - and improvement of our election laws are good statutory examples of where we must work together.
But finally, fundamental changes to our Constitution should emanate from the people themselves, not from those whose reach the Constitution is specifically intended to restrict - especially in today’s climate. There is a cloud over the Capitol as a result of some events that occurred in the past few years.
This cloud might only be lifted by putting the people back in charge at a constitutional convention. If this occurs, the House of Representatives could focus its full attention on getting back to the work of governing this Commonwealth. Pennsylvanians like myself could get back to their lives with renewed confidence in the integrity of government.
House rules changes are strictly internal institutional affairs. Statutory change is a team effort between legislative bodies and citizens. But fundamental constitutional change – today more than ever – is the people’s job. I ask that you leave it to them.