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State House spending comes under scrutiny

| Saturday, April 28, 2007

HARRISBURG -- In the state Senate, Republican Jane Orie is taking aim at "pinstripe patronage," the lucrative contracts dealt to professionals who are insiders and friends of politicians.

The House, says Democrat Bill Mackey, a Berks County activist, could tackle government reform by first cutting its own spending.

Does the chamber really need 11 employees carrying the title of sergeant at arms, with combined salaries exceeding $330,000, as House records show, just "to keep order in the House of Representatives?" Mackey asked Friday.

His testimony before the House Speaker's Legislative Reform Commission and Orie's promise yesterday to introduce legislation that would eliminate patronage contracts came a day after Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a sister publication of The Valley Independent, how a state with nearly twice Pennsylvania's population gets by with a legislature costing almost one-fifth as much.

The 181-member, part-time Texas Legislature will spend about $70 million this year.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly, the nation's largest full-time legislature, is expected to spend $335 million this year.

Texas has 22 million people, compared to 12 million in Pennsylvania.

Full-time legislatures, said Perry, a Republican, tend to pass bills that might not be needed and that cost taxpayers money.

Ken Schaefer, a retired certified public accountant from Lebanon, encouraged a two-year forensic audit of the General Assembly.

There's a "one-time opportunity to sweep the closets clean" and examine the Legislature's financial dealings during the current session, Schaefer said.

Schaefer and Mackey, a former state House candidate, were among people suggesting ways the House reform panel could revamp business at the Capitol.

Many suggested downsizing the Legislature.

But, said Mackey, he doesn't hear people talking about a smaller legislature - the people he talks to just want the body to spend less on itself.

Orie, of McCandless, is pushing a broad government reform agenda in the Senate.

Her bill would prohibit any branch of state government and any agency from awarding contracts for legal, bond or management consulting work above $5,000 without competitive bidding.

For contracts under $5,000, firms would be selected on rotation from a pool of qualified applicants. under provisions of Orie's bill.

Professional service contracts for consultants often are awarded without bids. Patronage occurs when government employment or contracts are offered to acquaintances or family members as a reward or favor, rather than on merit or qualifications, Orie's office said in announcing her plan to introduce the bill.

"There was only one true mandate in last year's election," Orie said, when voters ousted lawmakers including top legislative leaders.

"The citizens of Pennsylvania demanded a more open and accountable government, and clearly indicated that they will not tolerate conflicts of interest and other similar actions designed solely to enrich public officials or political insiders," added Orie, whose district represents parts of Allegheny and Butler counties.

Sara Steelman, chair of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, told the House panel that reform is needed in three basic areas - limiting what's spent on campaigns, instituting nonpartisan redistricting and opening access to government records.

Steelman, a former Democratic House member from Indiana County, said the Legislature should end post-election - or so-called "lame duck" - sessions, where the potential for mischief runs high.

Controversial issues often emerge at the end of a two-year legislative session, after voters decide who should be in office, Steelman said.

Pennsylvania's lobbying law needs changes, Steelman said, to either ban gifts from lobbyists to public officials or require that officeholders disclose every gift "from the first penny."

Orie has introduced a package of legislative reform measures that would:

n Prohibit a state agency from hiring lobbyists.

n Prohibit elected state officials from accepting a paid position with any state agency until two years after he or she leaves office.

n Require Senate consent for any appointee to the state Gaming Control Board

n Prohibit elected officials from helping to raise money for a lobbyist.

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