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Senators slam House for stalling reform

| Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008

Bills designed to reform state government and make its workings more open to Pennsylvania taxpayers likely will die this session because of inaction in the House, the Senate majority leader said Monday.

Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, told the Tribune-Review he has received no indication that the House will take up bills to increase fines for violating the open meetings law, to post state salaries online, ban bonuses to legislative staffers, curb conflicts of interest and require disclaimers for TV advertisements paid for with tax dollars.

"It leads you to question how serious (House leaders) are about reform," said Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican, who met with Trib editors.

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, who controls the House calendar, said through a spokesman that one of the Senate's bills -- increasing penalties for violating the Sunshine law -- is "on the House voting calendar" next week.

That doesn't guarantee a House vote, however. The House amended the bill and the Senate, which would need to reconsider it, is scheduled for only three session days next week.

The House, which will be in session a few additional days in October and after the November election, "is an equal chamber" to the Senate and has every right to change the open meetings bill, said Tom Andrews, DeWeese's spokesman.

"If they want to avoid working in the month of November, that's up to them," Andrews said. He questioned whether the bills are a priority for Senate leaders if they aren't coming back to session after next week.

Senate leaders have said they won't return after the election because so-called "lame duck" sessions historically have been marked by mischief. Critics say defeated and retiring legislators, the lame ducks, no longer are answerable to voters.

Pileggi said that since he joined the Senate in 2002, "there's been a dramatic change in attitude in our (Republican) caucus and even in our chamber. When I got to the Senate, it was very top-down management."

Since then, he said, the Senate has taken steps to open its process to the public, by posting votes on the Internet, putting journals of Senate action online, ending late-night sessions, requiring amendments to be published six hours before a scheduled vote and broadcasting Senate sessions on the Internet in addition to the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

While the House last year went through a lengthy process of changing its rules through the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform, Orie said in the Senate, "we just did it ... without any pomp and circumstance."

Now, broader reforms to open state government apparently will die because the House won't act, the senators said.

Orie said it didn't help that House Republicans introduced reform bills just last week.

House Minority Policy Chairman Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, who last week sponsored a reform bill similar to Orie's to require competitive bidding on legal contracts, said the problem is DeWeese's leadership.

"Bill DeWeese should run the Senate reform bills and pass them and get them on the governor's desk," Turzai said. "Bill DeWeese is being an obstructionist by not passing these bills. We can't be worried about (who gets) credit."

Turzai said House Republicans are looking for bills to which they could attach their measures as amendments, if House Democrats don't move the Senate bills. Democrats control the House by one seat.

Andrews said Turzai "knows very well that when the House was Republican (controlled), the Senate was Republican and the governor was Republican, they didn't move any of these issues."

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