"What's black and white and read all over?"

Friday, April 21, 2006
Posted 9:37 PM by

Top 10 ways to improve Pa. today

Forget term limits, or caps on lobbying and campaign contributions, or other pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams.

This is Pennsylvania, a place that's been corrupt and purposely inept since William Penn's sons first conned Indian tribes out of more land than their father owned by abusing the Walking Purchase.

With that in mind, I offer these bipartisan suggestions that with a little off-the-shelf technology and a pen might help level the playing field between the voting public and the privileged elite that are our elected and appointed public officials.

I've even e-mailed a copy to Gov. Ed Rendell. Let's see if he replies.

10. Immediately add the words "and lobbyists expenses" to Act 71 of 2004, the state law legalizing slot machines, under the provision that prohibits campaign contributions from all potential slot machine parlor licensees and slot machine manufacturers.

Penn National Gaming Inc. spent nearly $1 million last year just to lobby the state Senate - a full year after the slots law was passed. Wonder what they wanted? If that money had been spent in campaign contributions somebody would be heading to jail.

9. Pass lobbyist disclosure legislation that actually makes sense.

Our legislators should, in the words of Godfather Don Corleone, 'refuse to be fools, to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by other men.'I'd be willing to let state Rep. John Perzel's lackluster bill for the House become a law, even if it was cooked up behind closed doors, since it merely matches what little information the state Senate already requires of lobbyists.

But I'd also pass another law which puts the onus on all lawmakers and executive branch employees.

If they have to keep track of their campaign contributions to get elected, why shouldn't they be required to keep track of the money lobbyists spend on them after they get into office?

I'd make the minimum reporting dollar value match the $50.01 threshold already established for campaign contributions. It should also force legislators and employees to spell out the specific bill for which they were being lobbied.

The public can then compare both filings and draw their own conclusions.

8. Have one database on the Web for all lobbyists expenses for both the legislative and executive branch. The public shouldn't have to jump from site to site to site and do the math. That's what computers and databases are for.

7. Update and unify the state Department of State's two online databases for candidate campaign finances and political contributions.

Would it be too much trouble to allow the public to search across multiple years, instead of one calendar year at a time? Searching one database once would save time and make it a much more valuable tool.

6. The state Ethics Commission's eLibrary for commission rulings and annual conflicts of interest statements is a joke and should be replaced by a database.

Simply collecting pdf files in once place and throwing a terrible search engine on top of them does not mean that these public records are accessible by the public.

I'm skilled as a reporter and online editor, but even I'm stumped trying to find Gov. Ed Rendell's annual conflict of interest statement.

5. A copy of ALL conflict of interest statements - from every elected office in Pennsylvania and every state employee - should be available to the public in one database at the Ethics Commission's Web site.

Every public employee - elected, appointed or hired - is required by law to fill one out annually. But not all of them can be found at the commission's Web site.

For instance, public officials and public employees of local governments including but not limited to school districts, townships, municipalities, authorities, etc. are filed only with the respective local governments.

Anyone "interested in viewing a Statement of Financial Interest for these officials/employees should contact the respective local governing body," the commission's Web site says.

Meanwhile, similar records for employees of state agencies are filed with their employers, NOT the Ethics Commission. "Parties interested in viewing these Statements of Financial Interest should contact the respective agency human resources office of the employee."

There's a new invention called a copying machine and an old one called carbon paper. Take your pick. The public should not have to play detective to find these records or answer potentially embarrassing questions just to read them.

4. Change the reporting deadlines for campaign finance reports. They should be filed monthly, not quarterly - and certainly not 30 days after an election has already passed. There should also be stiffer penalties for failure to disclose financing.

Establish a bipartisan statewide commission to investigate ALL complaints alleging improperly filed campaign finance reports, not just statewide races.

Under the current toothless law, which dates back to the post-Watergate era, partisan county election boards and the courts have jurisdiction for other races and no one is successfully prosecuted for violating the law.

It's now perfectly legal to shove a check into a drawer and then cash it a few days before the election, not report it until 30 days after that or amend an old report once the election is past - all without facing penalties.

Even the appearance of a conflict of interest between state lawmakers and the state's highest court should be avoided.3. Take a hint from the federal lawsuit filed by good government group Common Cause and stop the alleged collusion with the state Supreme Court. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest between those who write and uphold the law is wrong and should be avoided at all costs. That's why the state Constitution calls for a separation of powers between the branches.

2. Close the legal loopholes that let both the state slots law and the now-repealed pay raise bypass the Constitutionally-mandated public process and be voted into law.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times and I'm a frickin' idiot.

1. Strike this line from the definition of a public agency in the state's Sunshine Law: "The term does not include a caucus or a meeting of an ethics committee created under rules of the Senate or House of Representatives."

That one line makes the Legislature the only entity in Pennsylvania government exempt from the law that's supposed to make public meetings public. Most of the actual haggling and debate on bills is now being done in secret caucuses rather than in front of the public.

Lawmakers should hold themselves to the same standard as other officials - or even a higher one, not a lower one.
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