Tim Potts landed a state job in 1972, fresh out of college, and spent 21 years in such jobs, 14 in the executive branch and seven as a staffer for the Pennsylvania Legislature.
I first met him when he was working on the re-election of Gov. Milton Shapp and I was an Associated Press reporter.
Other state employees have drawn full state salaries, plus bonuses, while working on such election campaigns, often for months at a time. That is the "Bonusgate" scandal, which has resulted in criminal prosecutions that are still ongoing.
In any case, there are few people who know more about the way Harrisburg operates than Potts, and today he heads a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen advocacy organization called Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, DR for short.
On Tuesday, a state House committee approved a proposal to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution and reduce the size of the House by 50 members. While that's an excellent idea, it represents a drop in the bucket of what's needed to deal with the various facets of Pennsylvania government.
I'll get back to that proposal, but five days earlier, DR released the results of a survey on how Pennsylvanians view that system.
By a margin of 93 percent to 6 percent, they favor a measure to "prohibit public officials from accepting anything of value from those who are seeking to influence them." That reflects the obvious — that Pennsylvania politicians, from the governor on down, are bought and paid for by wealthy special interests. Potts called it "legalized bribery."
For me, one delicious finding was that 95 percent favor a change that would cut into Pennsylvania's two-party monopoly, allowing third-party candidates to get on ballots as easily as entrenched Democrats and Republicans. Major party bosses have conspired to make third-party challenges all but impossible, because they know what will happen if voters get a real choice.
DR's survey found that 87 percent favor an "initiative process" that would get some issues on the ballot, bypassing the need to rely on the Legislature to do everything.
A smaller majority, 62 percent, favor a reduction in the size of the Legislature.
In the DR release about the survey, Potts took note of a typical action by state legislators — the illegal pay grab they tried to get for themselves in 2005, before citizen outrage forced them to retreat.
"For sheer audacity, greed and arrogance, few political events have matched it," his release said. "Since then, precious little has changed in the underlying culture of corruption. … We still get stealth legislation and public officials who treat citizens with barely disguised contempt."
That brings us back to the aptly named House Bill 153, which provides for the constitutional amendment to cut the number of House districts from 203 to 153.
Tuesday's story said that would "lower taxpayer costs" but that critics fear it "lessens the clout of rural residents." Also, it would take many years to implement.
First, I have bad news for regular residents, rural or otherwise. They have zero clout now; only special interests have clout, as seen in casino legislation, obscene favors for the gas drilling industry, the defeat of tort reforms to control unscrupulous lawyers, and countless other issues.
As for lower taxpayer costs, I asked Stephen Miskin, spokesman for HB 153's chief sponsor, House Speaker Sam Smith, how much would be saved. "At a minimum, it would be $5 million," Miskin said.
While that's great, it does not compare to what Pennsylvania would gain if it imposed a severance tax on gas. Our gas is worth billions (with a B) to the Texas industrialists who gave Gov. Tom Corbett $1 million in "political campaign contributions" to make us the only state without such a tax. (Even Texas has a severance tax.)
When it comes to saving money by getting rid of some of our useless public officials, I have long argued that Pennsylvania has at least 10 times as many school districts as it needs, with each district filled with six-figure-salary administrators who duplicate the paper shuffling of the administrators in the district next door.
We have 500 school districts, and reducing that to a reasonable number, as I reported last August, would save Pennsylvania taxpayers $1.5 billion (with a B) a year.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
PA Legislature too big but is only part of the problem
« Previous Story More Topic pages Next Story »
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.