Legislator beset by reform movement (Philadelphia Inquirer: 7/22/08)

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signs legislation on reforming state laws on lobbying and gaming, as Rep. Babette Josephs D-Philadelphia, looks on in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Christopher Wink | July 22, 2008 | Philadelphia Inquirer

HARRISBURG – State Rep. Babette Josephs came to the Capitol in 1985 vowing to be a voice for “people who have no voice.” For years, the Center City liberal waged a lonely fight against the pervading conservatism in the General Assembly.

In 2007, after Democrats took control of the House, Josephs ascended to a powerful new role: chairwoman of the State Government Committee, the panel charged with considering legislation related to government operations.

But Josephs, 67, now finds herself the scourge of the newly energized reform movement.

Reform advocates, their cause rejuvenated with the indictments of 12 Harrisburg insiders in a recent bonus scandal, say Josephs is holding back a wave of change that could restore public faith in the legislature. Among the stalled bills are measures that would post all government staff salaries online and trim the size of the General Assembly.

One activist likened her to Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. Another dubbed her “a reform mortician.”

“Her State Government Committee is where reform bills go to die,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of RockTheCapital.org, a Harrisburg public-interest group.

Josephs, the only female committee chair in the House, defended her handling of legislation, saying that not all of the bills constituted “reform” and that others needed more work.

“Just because somebody or some group says something is reform doesn’t mean it is so,” she said in an interview.

In October, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill, 48-0, that would ban all government bonuses for state workers. It has sat in Josephs’ committee untouched ever since.

Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair), the sponsor, accused Josephs of playing games with his bill and others.

Josephs “can derail a bill or silence a bill that no one ever hears about,” Eichelberger said. “It’s just dead. These games are very harmful for the process.”

Josephs said Eichelberger’s bill did not go far enough because it allowed some bonuses to continue. Josephs is seeking cosponsors for a bonus-ban bill that deals with issues not addressed by Eichelberger’s bill, said Rodney Oliver, executive director of the State Government Committee.

Oliver said Josephs hoped to call a special committee meeting this summer to vote out the bill and send it to the floor by the time the full House returns in September.

Nevertheless, two leading Senate Republicans sent a letter to House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) last week outlining seven bills that have stalled in the House, five of which are in Josephs’ hands.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) cited Eichelberger’s legislation in addition to bills that would require online mileage logs for state vehicles, online governmental-salary information, increased penalties for violating the Sunshine Law, and disclosure of state-funded advertising.

All five passed the Senate unanimously.

“The appropriate thing then would be to report them out of committee, amended or improved. Not let them sit,” Pileggi said.

Another reform issue that Josephs has taken flak for holding up would address the state’s partisan legislative redistricting system and replace it with an independent panel.

Josephs has said that she is not against changing the system but that she has not yet seen legislation that would create a fair and transparent system. Now, any chance to enact legislation in time for the 2010 census, when redistricting could take place, has passed.

“In Pennsylvania, we’ve been electing people for three centuries,” Josephs said. “We can wait 10 years to do it right.”

Josephs’ defenders say she wants to ensure that only well-crafted bills moved to the House floor.

“She would rather report out a good bill than report out a bill,” said Larry Frankel, a Josephs constituent and ACLU lobbyist. “If someone raised a legitimate concern . . . she would want to hear it.”

Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think tank, suggested that Josephs and DeWeese – who as caucus leader is the focus of a torrent of criticism in the bonus scandal – were working together to impede reform.

Brouillette contended Josephs was like Cerberus “guarding the river Styx” of reform.

But Josephs, who is the longest-serving woman in the House, countered that Republicans never passed reform bills when they controlled both chambers of the legislature and the executive office.

She said her committee has endorsed “enormous, much more important legislation.”

Josephs pointed to bills, which were approved by the committee but have not become law, that would require more disclosure for campaign-expense reporting, end lame-duck sessions, and prohibit state investment in countries that sponsor terrorism or genocide.

Still, the slow pace of reform is almost certain to emerge as a central issue in the General Assembly and Josephs’ campaign this fall.

Her Republican opponent, Philadelphia lawyer Wally Zimolong, has made it the central plank in his platform.

“She’s on the wrong side of every reform-based issue,” Zimolong said. “It’s not about liberal or conservative. This is about good government.”

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