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Corbett squandered rare chance for reform

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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HARRISBURG

Tom Corbett was the only elected attorney general to aggressively pursue public corruption. His investigations as AG resulted in convictions of 23 mostly ex-lawmakers, legislative staffers and two sitting lawmakers. The rogues gallery included two former House speakers.

That investigation did a lot to move the old guard out and, in general, improved things by getting rid of longtime leaders, many of whom used taxpayer dollars as their own.

But when Corbett ran for governor in 2010, he made it crystal clear he would work to reform the General Assembly, stop per diems and end Walking Around Money (WAMs) for lawmakers' pet projects. In TV commercials he said he would introduce a legislative reform plan on day one.

No one in modern history was situated as well as Corbett to tackle the kinds of legislative abuses that led to dozens of felony convictions. It was a unique opportunity that we might not see again for decades. A grand jury report under the auspices of his prosecutors issued wide-ranging recommendations — from consolidating duplicative operations to term limits and ending taxpayer-paid caucuses. The May 2010 report was ignored by the General Assembly, proving the Legislature cannot reform itself.

On a rainy Jan. 18, 2011, with the state capital city mired in slush, about 1,000 supporters stood on Commonwealth Avenue at the rear of the Capitol as Corbett took the oath of office. I eagerly awaited Corbett's legislative reform recommendations. I had covered most of his investigations, perp walks, preliminary hearings and trials. He knew better than anyone what was wrong with the place.

By the end of the day, however, there were no recommendations. I figured, OK, there is a whole lot going on — getting a final team in place, a budget shortfall and many other issues. Through his first week I bugged his press office for the legislative recommendations.

There weren't any.

Finally about a week later Corbett's press office issued a news release outlining some largely lame proposals, such as moving to a two-year budget cycle rather than an annual one (requiring complicated passage of a constitutional amendment) and a “task force” to review all boards and commissions.

While he did call for ending WAMs, the overall effort was hugely disappointing.

Corbett squandered a rare opportunity to change the way Harrisburg really works. He had the cachet as a newly elected governor to get lawmakers to make major changes. But he chose not to. He left it up to each chamber to do its own reform. It was just what they liked to hear.

The governor had an agenda to pass and budget holes to plug. I think he believed he couldn't afford to alienate legislators.

The lesson? Beware of gubernatorial candidates' promises for legislative reform in the May primary and the November general election.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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