The “to-do” list for the Pennsylvania Legislature in the coming session is long and already contentious. Here’s our compilation of law-making priorities for the New Year.
First, a preamble: Unless the Republican leadership in the House and Senate loosens up the rules for debate and votes at the committee and floor levels — opening the process to the rank and file in both parties — the law-making process will continue to be commandeered by a cabal of leaders and committee chairs. The current system allows them to suppress hearings, debate and analysis, and bring preferred bills to the floor at the last minute, robbing members of the time needed to read and absorb them.
Without rules changes, other attempts at reform will be knee-capped. We’ll be treated to another four years of stalemates between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his GOP adversaries on the big issues.
1. Redistricting reform. This is at the top because, like rules changes, it speaks to the manipulation of the democratic process by the party in power. Democrats indulge in it too, when given the chance, but majority Republicans perfected the art of gerrymandering in the last decade. This year the Legislature missed the deadline to amend the state Constitution in time for the 2021 remapping, but there’s still a pressing need to switch to a less partisan citizens commission.
2. Pension reform would go a long way toward another goal — getting the state budget on a more solid, year-to-year footing without resorting to debt, gimmicks and vice taxes. The unwieldy future demands of state and municipal pension funds threaten to make huge tax demands on every Pennsylvanian.
3. Continuing the fight against opioid abuse. Wolf has made a promising start. Addiction treatment, education and prevention programs, attacking the sources of supply. Pennsylvania led the nation on overdose deaths in 2017. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charity recently donated $10 million to help the state reduce opioid deaths.
4. Education funding reform and property tax reform go hand-in-hand. Pennsylvania’s funding of school districts creates wide disparities in programs and opportunity. Previous attempts to lessen the school tax burden on low-income homeowners have been half-hearted and ineffectual.
5. Prison and criminal justice reform, building upon newly enacted federal legislation, would put common sense back into sentencing laws and reduce the taxpayer bill for incarceration.
6. Electronic voting machines should be upgraded to ensure the 2020 election will be hack-proof. Make voter registration and early voting easier.
7. Let’s shrink the size of the Legislature and its support staff. Two hundred and three House members? Unfortunately, a bill to cut that number to 151 was thwarted in September by a bipartisan group in the House that insisted on an amendment to shrink the 50-member Senate. The poison pill is alive and well.
8. Infrastructure. Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and public transit systems were bolstered by successive fuel tax hikes approved by former Gov. Tom Corbett and the GOP-led Legislature. But one look around the Lehigh Valley tells you that commercial, housing and traffic growth is constantly raising the stakes.
9. Campaign finance. The system is still broken, with no limits on contributions and easy evasion of disclosure of the sources of big special-interest money.
That’s it. If you’re wondering why privatization of state liquor stores didn’t make the cut, well, Pennsylvanians seem to be mollified by the “freedom” to buy beer and wine at supermarkets and convenience stores. And it makes the dysfunction in Harrisburg a bit easier to swallow.
The above editorial was published Dec. 28 by the Easton Express-Times. Its views are its own.