HARRISBURG — Rep. Brad Roae might be the most optimistic guy in the state House.
Roae, R-Crawford, has plans to push a trio of reform measures that would eliminate state cars for lawmakers, strip lawmakers’ cost-of-living increases and end per diem on weekends, in some cases. They’re taxpayer-friendly ideas, but it’s uncertain whether lawmakers who enjoy the perks have the collective appetite for such reform.
Roae knows his proposals are a hard sell, but he thinks the public would back the changes even if fellow lawmakers don’t embrace them.
“Imagine if you went into work and you suggested to your co-workers we should reduce the salary and benefits that we have where we work. That probably wouldn’t go over very well.”
It’s still worth trying, said Roae, joining plenty of other lawmakers who seemingly have resolutions to make 2015 a year of improved ethics and accountability for public officials.
Lawmakers have already circulated proposals that legislators go without pay if they don’t complete a budget on time and that the governor disclose campaign contributions from appointees.
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, has announced his intention to pursue gift-ban legislation.
“This measure is essential toward rebuilding public confidence that our laws and policies are shaped through thoughtful deliberation rather than by undue influence on the part of special interests,” Smucker said in a memo.
Legislation in the Senate also calls for per diem reform by installing a receipt-based reimbursement system. Former Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, publicly backs that idea.
All of the legislation sounds great, but Eric Epstein, coordinator of the good-government group Rock the Capital, equated the reform rhetoric to a “meaningless ritual.”
“The Legislature creates the illusion of reform at the beginning of each session,” he said. “We know they’re not reformers. They’re the gang who couldn’t vote straight.”
While Epstein hopes incoming governor Tom Wolf will help spur change, the latest session, which wrapped up in November, lends some credence to the idea reform is a longshot.
Lawmakers failed to pass a ban on cash gifts, despite an embarrassing scandal in Philadelphia that has led to charges against two lawmakers. They also didn’t act on other simple reform ideas, such as a proposal to end campaign fundraising on legislative session days.
Now that the session calendar has flipped, Roae’s wants to build early bipartisan support for his three proposals.
Roae said the number of lawmakers using state cars has dropped public pressure over the increases, but he still doesn’t see the need for them. He pointed out that lawmakers had their last session day Nov. 12 and don’t return to Harrisburg until Jan. 6.
“Why would a legislator need a state car for two months when we don’t even have to be in Harrisburg for two months?” he said.
As for per diem, Roae targeted them in the latest session with mixed success.
Parts of his proposals — such as barring lawmakers from collecting a per diem for a committee meeting in which they didn’t participate – were rolled into internal changes. But Roae’s idea to end per diem on Saturday and Sunday when not in session or preceded or followed by a session day didn’t make it into a rule or a law, he said. He’s trying again.
Roae’s third reform idea intends to stop some public funds from even getting to lawmakers. He wants to end lawmakers’ annual cost-of-living adjustment that inflates annual pay and pensions.
Ultimately, Roae believes Pennsylvania could have a part-time Legislature, so he’s OK with salaries remaining stagnant. If lawmakers want a raise they have to legislate it, and “see what the public thinks about that,” Roae said.
Perhaps the proposals will idle for two years and end up being re-introduced in a new session. Or, perhaps, they’ll gain some traction in 2015. Sometimes reforms need a few years to percolate, Roae said.
“I like to be optimistic,” he said.