Constitutional convention needed for reformEdit

12/26/2006, Editor's Note: This is the first of a five-part series of editorials put

together by Times-Shamorck Communications, of which The Daily Review is a part.

"All power is inherent in the people, 
and all free governments are founded on their authority and 
instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. 
For the advancement of these ends they have 
at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right 
to alter, reform or abolish their government 
in such manner as they may think proper."

All power is inherent in the people ... an appropriate bulwark of the state government here in Pennsylvania, America's cradle of democracy. Yet Pennsylvania lawmakers, over the course of decades, have vested too much of that power in their own incumbency.

The people cannot effectively exercise their inherent power when information about their state government is denied to them by law, and when those laws are passed under cover of darkness. They cannot bring their inherent power to bear upon lawmakers who use their offices to shield themselves from scrutiny, exempt themselves by the same laws that apply to the governed, and enrich themselves behind the very curtains they raise to deflect scrutiny.

Voters this year delivered an unequivocal message to the General Assembly: They want reform.

The most recent sessions of the state Legislature will be remembered primarily for a massive political miscalculation that still has the potential to fundamentally reshape Pennsylvania's government. That is, if returning lawmakers and 57 newly elected legislators truly plan to embrace reform.

The miscalculation was the massive pay raise for lawmakers, judges and others that the Legislature passed in the wee hours of July 7, 2005. Architects of the raise expected the furor to subside by the time the lawmakers returned from vacation.

Instead, the raise became a window, revealing a labyrinth of power and privilege that lawmakers had constructed for themselves. Each time the media or activists peeled away the veil covering one layer of needed reform, another was exposed.

There is one common thread running through the diverse areas in which reform is vital - the need for a constitutional convention. That alone is ironic. If lawmakers, and the state appellate courts, had simply adhered to the current constitution's prescriptions for acting in the public interest, they would have avoided the conduct that now makes reform so imperative.

It is critical that a constitutional convention be conducted next year because amendments, or a new constitution, would have to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and by public referendum. An early convention would be necessary in order to ensure that changes are in place by the completion of the 2010 census. That count will trigger redistricting, and reform of that process is fundamental to a host of other reforms.

The power of the lawmakers to, in effect, draw their own district boundaries every 10 years is a fundamental means by which incumbency is preserved. Rather than having voters select their representatives, the system allows the representatives to select their voters. Not surprisingly, most incumbents end up with districtwide demographics that are hostile to challengers.

Many reform advocates have floated ideas including term limits, a part-time Legislature, reducing the General Assembly's size from 253, and even eliminating one entire house in favor of a single chamber. None of the changes would be meaningful, however, without establishing an independent means to redraw legislative boundaries to favor competitive races rather than the preservation of incumbency.

Such a system should be a top priority of a constitutional convention in 2007, which would be the first in 40 years. A convention would remind all parties that "all power is inherent in the people," and those people ultimately would have the opportunity to make the final decision on the convention's results. It's time to restore governance by the people under a newly considered state constitution.

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