Pa. lawmakers seek special session on ethics reform (Philadelphia Inquirer: 7/17/08)

By Christopher Wink and Mario F. Cattabiani | Jul 17, 2008 | Philadelphia Inquirer

HARRISBURG – A week after 289 criminal charges were filed in a wide-ranging government corruption probe, a group of lawmakers yesterday called for a special legislative session devoted solely to restoring the public’s faith in Harrisburg.

“There is a crisis of confidence in Pennsylvania. . . . We must respond with action,” said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) who was joined by eight other members of the House and Senate who are pushing for a special session dubbed “Governmental and Ethics Reform.”

Said Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D., York), “We are under a dark cloud. . . . We need to get back to the people’s work.”

The group yesterday called on Gov. Rendell to convene such a session beginning in September. Rendell recently made clear he has no plans of doing so on his own, arguing that the legislative agenda for the rest of the year is already crammed with other key bills.

Anticipating that Rendell might not call a special session, the lawmakers yesterday began collecting signatures of their colleagues to force the issue. A governor must call a special session if the majority of the 203-member House and 50-member Senate ask for one.

In prepared remarks released hours after the news conference, Rendell said he would “happily” call a session if petitioned to do so.

“The fall schedule will be a busy one, as the vital issues of energy conservation, utility rate mitigation, and health care are the primary matters we must address,” he wrote. “But, I believe if we dedicate ourselves to work over the summer to try to reach a consensus . . . we can address all of these issues by the end of the year.”

A week ago today, Attorney General Tom Corbett announced criminal counts against a former top House member, 10 Democratic aides and a sitting lawmaker, alleging they conspired to use millions in public funds and resources for political campaign purposes.

Some believe the charges could revive bogged down reform efforts to improve accountability and transparency in Harrisburg that started after the 2005 pay raise debacle.

Dozens of bills have been introduced in the last 18 months dealing with so-called reform efforts. They range from banning gifts to lawmakers to placing limits on campaign donations to abolishing government bonuses. Some of the bills have passed one chamber only to get bottled up in the other, and could be among the agenda items in a special session.

Such sessions are designed to focus lawmakers’ attention on one topic alone and, in theory, to speed the legislative process. In recent years, special sessions have been called to consider legislation dealing with property taxes, drought relief and energy policies.

Some legislators believe the call for a special session on reform is nothing more than a needless headline-grabber.

“If there was the true desire to move on these reform issues we could come back next week and do it,” said Steve Miskin, press secretary to House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson).

Advocates for the special session spoke minutes after another news conference on the topic of reforming Harrisburg wrapped up on the Capitol steps.

A group of 17 Democrats seeking House seats endorsed a slate of policies they dubbed the Pennsylvania Candidate Platform for Reform, or PennCPR. Members of the group pledged, if elected, to cut legislative perks, reduce the influence of lobbyists and increase transparency of campaign funding, among other things.

The agenda, said Paul Drucker, who is running for Chester County’s 157th House seat, is “designed to bring reform efforts off of life support.”

“We are tired of having to explain the embarrassing stories that are coming out of the Capitol,” said Drucker, a Tredyffrin lawyer.

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