Will 2019 Be A Year Of Reform?

January 3, 2019 GMT

Political dysfunction was one of the major stories in 2018, and nowhere more so than at the Pennsylvania Capitol. The state Legislature turned in a particularly dismal performance, leaving on the table key reforms that are essential to creating better governance in Pennsylvania. Leaders of the Republican majorities in both houses are primarily responsible for allowing those initiatives to die on the vine, even though members of both parties employed an array of legislative devices to preserve their own power and prerogatives at the expense of the commonwealth’s overhaul progress. Part of the reason for that paralysis is that 2018 was a gubernatorial and legislative election year — a period when legislators studiously avoid any major initiative that might prompt voters to pay attention. Now, the dawn of 2019 is the opening of a narrow window for lawmakers to consider the commonwealth’s future over their own. Lawmakers basically reneged on two key reforms on which they had talked a good game. The first, and most important reform that they killed was movement for a constitutional amendment to end the gerrymandering by which lawmakers select their own voters. Their shameless manipulation of legislative and senatorial district borders for their own benefit is the fundamental problem with the state government. It enables the political polarization in which legislators press ideology rather than solutions, knowing that their carefully selected majorities back home won’t penalize them. It poisons the entire government. An amendment to remove lawmakers from the redistricting process in favor of a citizens commission appeared to be on track, with many lawmakers mouthing their approval of it, until Republican leaders created a poison pill to create judicial gerrymandering and lawmakers of many stripes amended it to death. The other amendment that died was a badly needed one to reduce the size of the bloated Legislature. After the Senate approved an amendment to reduce the size of the House from 203 to 151 seats, the House killed it with an amendment to reduce the size of the Senate — substituting tit-for-tat politics for a more effective Legislature and more efficient government. But even a smaller Legislature would be a minor reform if gerrymandering remains the norm. There would be nothing to stop legislative leaders from drawing larger House districts for the same perverse effect. Whether legislative leaders make good on reform is the major question of 2019, with a particularly volatile election year looming in 2020.