Failing Grades and Overdue Reform

Last week U.S. News & World Report released its third annual list of the best and worst states in America to live in, based on “thousands of data points to measure how well states are performing for their citizens.” Pennsylvania was ranked 41st: down from 30th in 2017 and 38th in 2018, far behind our neighboring states.

Every indicator points back to priorities and policy in Harrisburg. For too long, headlines have given our state a failing grade on issues that should concern us all.

Pa. gets failing grade for treatment of lead in school drinking water.

The commonwealth also gets a failing grade for protection from lead in the air: 18 cities in PA have worse lead levels than Flint Michigan. In the past two decades, over 25 bills have been introduced to address this, but so far no remedies have been given so much as a vote in committee.

“Pa. gets failing grade for helping college students with costs.”

From last fall, this article pointed out that PA falls last or near last in share of public education funding, in school funding equity and in jobs creation, while ranking highest in the nation for average student debt. Bills are regularly introduced in Harrisburg to address all of these issues. None are given a hearing or a vote,

Here’s a headline from 2015: Pennsylvania gets F grade in 2015 state integrity investigation

The lack of legislative or executive accountability and the absence of effective ethics entities, as well as weak laws and lackluster oversight of lobbying, political finance, and elections, have combined to give Pennsylvania an F in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Pennsylvania’s numerical score of 58 placed it tied for 45th among the 50 states.” Browse through bills introduced in Harrisburg over the past few decades and you’ll find many designed to address these failures. None are given a hearing or a vote.

In many states, popular reforms and needed solutions breeze through part-time legislatures: bills are introduced, discussed, amended, referred to full vote and passed with little drama and minimal delay.

In Pennsylvania? More failing grades: an F in legislative agenda fairness and an absolute, stunning failure to pass bills sought by a majority of Pennsylvanians, even when those bills would save the state money, bolster our economy, or salvage our reputation as a laggard or outlier in almost any ranking of importance.

We understand why our legislative leaders love the status quo: lobbyist dollars and undisclosed gifts flow smoothly in their direction while they dictate agendas and ignore constituents and colleagues.

We don’t understand rank and file legislators who aid and abet that status quo, yet tell us, straight-faced, “the system is fine.”

By every indicator we can find, the system is broken.

Our full-time Senate spent exactly four days in Harrisburg in May. Why? Ask your senator.

Maybe they’re competing with the House record of 2018: 4 days in January, 2 in February, 3 in March, 5 in May, 1 in November. And 0 in December.

Many part-time legislatures enact far more bills, far more quickly, for far less money than happens in Harrisburg, where less than a third of bills introduced are ever given a hearing, and less than 10 percent are enacted.

Of those, many are resolutions naming bridges or roads or creating “problem awareness days”, rather than addressing the many real and pressing problems facing our schools, our communities, our economy.

Some of us met in Harrisburg on April 16 to say “redistricting reform is past due.”

It is far past due, as are reforms to procedural rules that would allow bills with strong support a hearing and vote.

Contact your legislator

How We'll Fix It

Summary of HB 22 and 23