Be careful what you wish for
By Dimitri Vassilaros
Sunday, February 12, 2006
The Pennsylvania Constitution does not need a makeover. The commonwealth does need new politicians -- governor, legislators and judges. A constitutional convention -- called for in the name of good government -- could be a catastrophe. Do Pennsylvanians really want to risk losing control of the convention to the same morally bankrupt politicians who were responsible for the pay-raise/pay-repeal fiasco?
There is a much better reason why the state's citizens should not be seduced by the temptation.
"What change in language would matter if the language is already clear?" said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and an expert on the Pennsylvania charter. Mr. Ledewitz is co- director of the law school's state Constitution Web site (paconstitution.duq.edu/). It is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the text, history and meaning of the near-forgotten document.
The only thing wrong with the state Constitution is that so few Pennsylvanians know much about it. If they did, they would discover a magnificent document that, if adhered to by the politicians in Harrisburg, would be the definition of good government.
One of the arguments for a constitutional convention is that it would be a simple way to reduce the size of the 253-person Legislature, plus their bloated staffs.
"The irony is the Legislature's size was increased on purpose to prevent corruption," Ledewitz said about a series of good-government constitutional reforms in 1874. The thought was to have so many representatives that bribing a critical mass of them would be almost impossible.
My, my, how times have changed.
If Pennsylvanians want fair taxation -- the government not playing favorites with this special-interest group or that -- it's already codified in the Constitution.
"I say to my students that our whole tax system is in radical violation of the state Constitution," Ledewitz said. Article 8, Section 1, mandates that all taxes shall be uniform on the same class of subjects.
When Tom Murphy was mayor of Pittsburgh, he went to the Legislature on behalf of a financial services company that had threatened to leave the city, Ledewitz said. The state created an exemption to the Pittsburgh Business Privilege Tax for companies in the securities industry. "That is an obvious and complete violation of the uniformity clause," Ledewitz said.
The mischievous machinations that led to last summer's pay-jacking were another radical violation of the Constitution. Several actually.
The bill dealt with more than one subject. It was not considered for three days by each chamber of the General Assembly. And it authorized an unconstitutional pay raise -- labeled as an "unvouchered expense" - - for the legislators. To name a few of the violations.
Ledewitz can name more. Many, many more.
The more Pennsylvanians learn about their contract with the government, the more they will realize that no fix is needed for something that is not broken.