Another failing grade for Pa.: It’s past time to reform the Legislature | Opinion

May 21, 2019 6:30 am

The Pennsylvania Capitol building (Capital-Star photo).

By Carol Kuniholm

Last week U.S. News & World Report released its third annual list of the best and worst states in America to live in, based on “thousands of data points to measure how well states are performing for their citizens.” Pennsylvania was ranked 41st: down from 30th in 2017 and 38th in 2018, far behind our neighboring mid-Atlantic states. For those concerned about our economy: we’re now ranked 44th.

Every indicator points back to priorities and policy in Harrisburg. That’s no surprise. A 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity Project described PA’s “entrenched culture of malfeasance” and placed us 45th in the country for systems in place to deter political corruption.

Year after year, our legislators promise solutions, introduce good legislation, then wait for legislative leaders to take interest. Whatever the problem, the answer is indifference or delay.

A recent headline: “Pa. gets failing grade for treatment of lead in school drinking water.” We’ve known for years now that 18 cities in PA have worse lead levels than Flint Michigan. In the past two decades, over 25 bills have been introduced to address this, but so far no remedies have been given so much as a vote in committee.

An op-ed last fall said “Pa. gets failing grade for helping college students with costs.” PA falls last or near last in share of public education funding, in school funding equity and in jobs creation, while ranking highest in the nation for average student debt. Bills are regularly introduced in Harrisburg to address all of these issues. None are given a hearing or a vote.

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That’s also no surprise: Research done at the 2014 Legislative Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures yielded a report on Best Practices for Collaborative Policy Making. The report documents policies and practices that enable efficient, effective bipartisan governance, as well as policies and practices that yield divisive partisanship, gridlock, anger and accusation.

On the basis of lessons learned and recorded in that study, states were rated on their agenda fairness practices.

Pennsylvania received a predictable zero. In most professions, hints of poor performance would send leaders scrambling to implement change and reinforce best practices.

Sadly, partisan gerrymandering creates safe districts for  incumbents who defer to the will of the party leaders who draw the lines. Those same leaders decide procedural rules and pocket the gifts they refuse to ban. It’s a tight knot of dysfunction that’s gone on far too long.

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Pennsylvania’s budget and economy, its reputation and resilience, are all harmed and hindered by our legislature’s inability to carry on nuanced debate and come to reasonable solutions.

This is an important moment for our legislature. Pennsylvania, once a global model for representative government, is now an outlier.

It is decades behind in adopting policies and reforms long sought by voters.

Legislators from both major parties have introduced resolutions to change procedural rules in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to allow more effective governance, and legislators from across the state and political spectrum have co-sponsored bills to end partisan gerrymandering.

Will those resolutions and bills be given a hearing and a vote? That will depend on public pressure and the few legislative leaders who hold complete control.

Fair Districts PA has held almost 700 public meetings over the last three years, attended by almost 27,000 people.

We’ll have about 500 volunteers at the polls during Tuesday’s primary election, collecting petition signatures to add to the over 50,000 signatures so far. Citizens want an end to gerrymandering and an end to legislative dysfunction. Many recognize that our state legislature is broken and are willing to do all they can to advocate for needed change.

If you care about the future of our state, you’ll join us in that work. Read our updates at, contact your representatives and insist they support proposed reforms or a committee to recommend reforms, and pay attention as this story unfolds.

Through informed, persistent civic engagement we can end our legislature’s cycle of failure and ensure policies that allow our commonwealth and communities to thrive.

Carol Kuniholm writes on behalf of the government reform group Fair Districts PA.

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