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Rendell jumps on reform bandwagon

| Tuesday, March 27, 2007

HARRISBURG -- It's time for "citizen soldiers" to take control and serve in the Legislature, Gov. Ed Rendell said Monday.

The Democratic governor, in a speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club, outlined a broad government reform agenda that incudes reducing the size of the General Assembly and limiting lawmakers' terms; establishing fairer and less partisan redistricting; limiting campaign spending; and passing a stronger open records law.

"It's not a career," Rendell said, "and I think it's important to get back to citizen soldiers."

Rendell said he wants to establish merit selection of appellate court judges, a plan that would transfer the power of selecting state court judges from voters to a commission composed of gubernatorial and legislative appointees and citizens. The governor would nominate prospective judges to the commission, and the Senate would confirm them.

"Citizens will not rest until there is an end to perks, an end to control by private interests, and an end to political rules that shut them out of the process," Rendell said.

He invited 55 members of the Legislature's freshman class to the governor's mansion Monday night in an attempt to woo them. Most of the newest legislators ran on reform agendas.

Pennsylvania's 253-member Legislature, the nation's second largest, has 3,000 staffers and a budget that equates to $1.3 million per member. It's time to cut down the number of House and Senate seats, Rendell said. That would require a constitutional amendment, as would limiting lawmakers' terms. Rendell proposes that an 11-member commission to consider the optimal number of legislators.

Accepting Rendell as an agent of change is difficult for some -- given that he previously opposed term limits, raised $72 million in campaign money during his two elections for governor and barely mentioned reform during his first term.

"Coming from rough-and-tumble Philly politics, he hasn't been a reformer," said Jack Treadway, political science professor at Kutztown University in Berks County.

"Do I trust him• No. He raised my taxes," said Sue Nirella, a former elementary school teacher living in Scott. But, Nirella said, "People can change. I'm all for that. I'll believe it when I see it."

Nirella, a Republican, said she leans toward establishing term limits but opposes reducing the size of the Legislature because it would mean "I will have less say" in Harrisburg.

Marianne Ernhart, a retiree from Greensburg, said some of Rendell's proposals sound good, but the idea of taking away people's right to vote for judges is "terrible."

"No control should ever be taken away from the voter," Ernhart said. A registered Independent, she believes Rendell is "trying to make himself look better now" by pushing reforms.

Gerald Smith, a former chief operating officer for a water company who lives in Rostraver, said he fully agrees with Rendell's proposals to place eight-year limits on House and Senate terms, reduce the size of the Legislature and make state records more accessible to citizens.

But merit selection of judges "is not reform to me," said Smith, a Republican.

Treadway thinks Rendell is concerned about his legacy and that the second-term governor loses nothing by pushing reforms that are popular with voters but stand little chance for passage.

"In Pennsylvania, I don't think campaign finance reform, redistricting and term limits have a prayer," the professor said.

Beefing up the open records law probably has the best shot, he said.

Treadway said that inviting new legislators to the mansion could be a sign that Rendell is serious.

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