Hearing may be major step toward state constitutional convention
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania hasn't held a constitutional convention for almost 40 years.
But amid continuing voter anger over legislative pay raises, bonuses and late-night mischief, many citizen groups and legislators are talking about a need to reform state government.
A major step in that process will be taken Thursday at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh, as the state Senate's State Government Committee holds the first of three hearings into whether the first constitutional convention since 1968 is warranted.
"A constitutional convention could address issues Pennsylvanians have been talking about since the 2005 pay raise, such as changing the size of the Legislature, enacting term limits for legislators and setting new guidelines for redistricting" after the 2010 census, said Russ Diamond, founder of PA Clean Sweep and one of those who raised the ruckus about the 2005 pay raise measure that led to its repeal.
Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the panel, said he is "leaning" toward introducing a bill that could lead to one sometime in 2008.
"A constitutional convention has relevance for state government in this age of reform," he said last week. But first he wants to hear from knowledgeable people from outside state government, like Duquesne law professor Bruce Ledewitz, an expert on the state judiciary and one of those who will testify Thursday.
The hearing, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., is open to the public, but only invited officials will testify. Other speakers will be Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, who last year introduced a resolution calling for a convention; Jake Haulk of the Allegheny Institute, a conservative think tank; Sara Steelman of Common Cause Pennsylvania; plus representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Allegheny County Bar Association.
Two more hearings will be held this spring in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Mr. Piccola said. Former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who was a reform leader at the 1968 convention, is expected to speak at one of the hearings.
Mr. Piccola said that before he drafts a bill calling for a referendum on a constitutional convention, "I will wait to see what the hearings produce. There is some opposition [to a convention] among some legislators" who like things the way they are.
Mr. Piccola and other advocates think that to avoid an agenda that is too jumbled and chaotic, a constitutional convention should be limited to certain specific issues. These might include:
Reducing the size of the 203-member House and 50-member Senate. Opponents of that idea say residents of many rural areas will lose their legislators and thus suffer if the overall number goes down.
Limiting the number of two-year terms that a House member can serve, or the number of four-year terms a senator can have.
Changing the compensation for members of the legislative, judicial or executive branches.
Creating a nonpartisan citizens commission to redraw the lines for General Assembly and congressional districts after the next census, rather than having legislative leaders "gerrymander" districts into strange shapes to protect their political base.
Changing to "merit selection" of judges, where they are appointed by the governor rather than being elected by the people every 10 years.
Giving Pennsylvanians the power of "initiative and referendum," like California voters have, to gather signatures to initiate new laws rather than waiting for state legislators to act.
Mr. Piccola said he favors an agenda limited to sections of the constitution dealing with the legislative, judicial and executive branches of state government.
If things get too wide open -- for instance, changing gun control laws, or limiting gun purchases, or limiting legalized abortions, or imposing caps on damages in medical liability lawsuits -- discussions could easily bog down and necessary government reforms might not be discussed, he said.
Even after a bill is enacted for a convention, Pennsylvania residents would have to approve the idea, via a statewide referendum. That could be held in November, if legislators agree this spring, Mr. Piccola said.
If the idea is approved by voters, a convention wouldn't be held until 2008. It would probably last about three months and probably be in Harrisburg.
There were 150 elected delegates at the 1968 convention, meaning three from each of the 50 state Senate districts, plus 18 ex-officio members, mainly top legislative leaders.
Mr. Piccola said 150 seems like "a workable number. You want to have a broad spectrum of people." But he thinks the next constitutional gathering should be "a citizens convention," without powerful incumbents on hand to try to preserve the status quo.
(Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 717-787-4254. )