2010-02-25 / Local & State

Outgoing Pa. Lawmakers Speak On Legislature’s Ills

By Mark Scolforo ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The Legislature has suffered its share of self-inflicted wounds in recent years, from raising its own pay and pension benefits to trials and convictions on charges of converting public employees and resources into re-election tools and to run personal errands.

Even the annual budget rite has become an embarrassment – the deal that should have been finished June 30 wasn’t completed until table games at casinos were legalized last month.

On their way out the door, some departing members of the General Assembly are finding much to criticize.

“It’s not a smooth operation,’’ said Rep. Merle Phillips, a Northumberland County Republican retiring after 30 years. “There has to be more bipartisanship as we try to solve all the problems, and we’re not having that right now.’’

Along with a few openings created when members won higher office in November, a slew of retirements means 18 seats or more in the House and at least three in the Senate will have new representation by the end of the year.

Once the dust clears, at least 62 of the 119 representatives and 16 of 27 senators who voted for the ill-fated 2005 pay raise legislation will no longer be holding those seats. There are 203 members of the House and 50 senators.

“That pay raise was just the most unbelievably stupid thing a group of people could come up with,’’ said Rep. Katie True, RLancaster, who is wrapping up a legislative career that began in 1992.

True blamed much of the Legislature’s image problem on its leaders.

“It’s the very visible folks that make very bad decisions,’’ True said. “They are the ones – not forgetting the leadership in the Senate – that get to sit at the table and make those deci- sions. That is not done by the rank-and-file, but we all get painted with the same brush.’’

Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith, D-Chester, who joined the House in the pay raise outrage election of 2006, is quitting in frustration over what she sees as a collective lack of the courage needed to do what is best for the people of the state.

“I’m frustrated by the egos and the power struggles that continually put politics over policy,’’ Smith said. “That’s it in a nutshell.’’

Serious health problems are behind the retirement of Rep. Bob Belfanti, D-Northumberland, a self-described “moderate on everything but labor issues’’ who joined the House 30 years ago.

Belfanti said reporters have focused on the misdeeds of a few at the expense of many honest, hardworking members. But he also believes rule changes passed as post-pay-raise reforms – and increasing partisanship – have exacerbated gridlock.

“If it’s a Democratic-sponsored bill it’s going to get stopped somewhere, and if it’s a Republican sponsored bill it’s going to get stopped somewhere in retribution,’’ Belfanti said.

The barrage of modern communications is part of the problem, said Rep. Russ Fairchild, RUnion.

“Unlike 22 years ago, you get instant e-mails from people on all sides of an issue,’’ he said. “I think we’ve lost a little bit of the ‘Let’s take an in-depth look at the issue before we look at legislation or we ram something through just because it’s good for a Democrat or a Republican.’’’

Rep. Kathy Manderino, DPhiladelphia, is leaving after 18 years out of a desire to try something new in life – not because of current working conditions in the House. Still, she has plenty of ideas about how things could be improved, starting with a redistricting process that would put more seats in play during the fall elections.

“If our districts were much more competitive they would have a striving to be in the center, because we would understand that that’s who elected us,’’ Manderino said.

Also on her legislative reform wish list: campaign contribution limits and consolidation of Pennsylvania’s balkanized form of local government. And she thinks letting each caucus control an independent computer system may have created the conditions under which campaign abuses could occur.

“You have to build your structures so that the integrity of the organization, the integrity of the system doesn’t depend on the goodness or badness of an individual in power,’’ she said.

The new members who will take the oath of office in January will be replacing senators and representatives who collectively have put in more than 400 years in the Legislature. Whether their fresh ideas will be an improvement over the experiences of their predecessors will be a story to watch in 2011.

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