Commentary

In 2021, tell your lawmakers to put Pa.’s people first | Opinion

January 3, 2021 6:30 am

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Carol Kuniholm

What if you were given a game with a gameboard that guaranteed some players a win and made everything harder for others?

What if one player set the rules and decided which players got a turn? Would you play? Not likely.

But what if that game decided whether your kids had a school library or librarian, safe drinking water or lead dust on every surface?

What if the game decided whether your parents would lose their homes to a crushing load of property tax?

What if the game decided if YOUR town would ever have adequate internet access, adequate health care, hope of new jobs?

That’s the game we’re all stuck in. Gerrymandered electoral districts returned many of our legislators to office, where seniority assures them more say than their colleagues.

On Jan. 5 legislative leaders will hand their colleagues procedural rules for the next two years that will take away their right to represent us.

From then on, the game will be rigged. Committee chairs will decide what bills get a vote. Will they listen to voters, or the deep pocket lobbyists who offer them gifts and take them to dinner? Legislative leaders decide what bills emerging from committee get a floor vote. Will they consider the needs of all of Pennsylvania’s communities, or let the extremes of their caucus call the shots?

For decades, Pennsylvania has been caught in a game we can’t win. We’ve lost more manufacturing jobs in recent years than any other state, while other state legislatures hurried to invest in innovation and new technologies. Our farmers lost ground to competitors, despite years of pleading for help in broadband access.

Our statewide spending on prisons keeps increasing, despite good solutions introduced session after session, and our investment in higher education continues to go down, undermining our statewide college system and all the local economies dependent on those institutions.

What happens in Harrisburg harms us all, no matter where we live, every single day. Policies are decided quickly, in committees stacked for one party control, by committee chairs who often have no expertise or real interest in the matters at hand. Petty partisanship and personal favors decide the outcomes, not good policy, best practice, or research into solutions in place in competitor states.

We can’t afford to let this dysfunction continue. Pennsylvania was once the top manufacturing state in the country, an agricultural leader, a shining star in education, medicine and tourism.

We could reclaim that with a legislature that does its job rather than play a rigged game where voters always lose. The Bipartisan Policy Center and Fair Vote, in collaboration with the National Council of State Legislatures, gave our  General Assembly an agenda fairness score of ZERO. Their Best Practices in Collaborative Policymaking provides many good ideas for a more fair game. Pennsylvania leaders have yet to put those better rules in place.

Contact your legislators to say “Please don’t vote away your right to represent us.” And let our legislative leaders know: we want rules that enable collaboration on solutions, not rules that let bad bills fly forward while good bills never get a vote.

We can’t afford to keep playing this game. It’s time for better rules.

Carol Kuniholm is the chair of the good government group Fair Districts PA. Her work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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