Lawmakers back limited constitutional convention

Eichelberger is prime sponsor of bill calling for the convention

A Lebanon County lawmaker is optimistic a proposed limited constitutional convention in Pennsylvania will become a reality.

“We need to change the structure of how Pennsylvania does its operations. If not, we will not be able to tackle our major problems, such as the unfunded pension liability and the growing need for services. This will allow us to restructure the process with citizens’ input,” state Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, told members of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club on Thursday at The Casino at Lakemont Park.

State Sen. John H. Eichelberger, R-Blair, is prime sponsor of the Senate bill calling for the convention.

“The bill would allow the voters to decide whether they want to have a limited constitutional convention. It’s been 50 years since we had one and over 50 years since we asked the voters if they wanted one, the longest span in the history of the state. This convention would only affect Articles II, III, IV and V of the constitution; these address the Legislature, judiciary and executive branches of our government,” Eichelberger said.

State Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, is prime sponsor of the House bill.

“The calls for reform to state government are steadily rising. Citizens are increasingly concerned about the size, cost and inefficiency of their government. This would give the voters the opportunity to decide if there should be a state constitutional convention to reform Pennsylvania’s government structures and practices, as was done in 1967,” Bloom wrote in a memo to House members.

Ryan praised Eichelberger and Bloom for their efforts.

“They were brilliantly done and what we need to do for the commonwealth. This is the only structurally sound way for us to get our commonwealth under control. It would lead to a restructuring of the Legislature. We are talking about reducing the size of the Legislature. This would give the people a way to determine the way the government is structured,” Ryan said.

“These two bills are absolutely essential for the survival of the commonwealth,” he said. “We are faced with a structural problem; if we don’t alter it, there is no hope.”

In a nutshell, the convention may make recommendations with regard to terms, size or compensation of the General Assembly; amendments of legislation, no-bid contracts and spending without an enacted budget, and the office of lieutenant governor also may be a subject of proposed changes, Bloom wrote.

“We hear about the size of the Legislature, whether it should be part time or full time, whether or not we need a lieutenant governor and other common questions,” Eichelberger said. “These and more could all be addressed at a limited constitutional convention.”

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, and state Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidays­burg, are co-sponsors of the House bill.

“Good policy objectives like term limits and a part-time Legislature, which will always receive faint support from incumbents, could be taken up in this convention. And things not really of much use, like a lieutenant governor’s office, could be gotten rid of,” McGinnis said. “The fact is that the status quo and its entrenched powers and special interests are harming the commonwealth and its future. It’s definitely worth a try.”

“I believe that voters should have a voice in how they want their government to run,” Ward said. “Many people have reached out on this issue. The limited convention gives the power to the people to change what they feel needs changed in certain defined sections.”

The House and Senate bills must be approved and then signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has not expressed any opposition to the plan, Ryan said.

Once that happens, a referendum question would give the voters of the commonwealth the opportunity to first decide whether or not there should be a constitutional convention. If the majority of voters vote in favor of a constitutional convention, a preparatory committee would immediately make logistical arrangements for the holding of the convention, Bloom wrote.

The convention would consist of 163 members — three delegates from each of the senatorial districts and 13 other members who would consist of members of the General Assembly and be ex-officio members. Citizens interested in becoming delegates to the convention would file petitions and run for delegate in the primary election.

All recommendations would require a majority vote of the 163 delegates. Then the proposed changes in the form of ballot questions would be placed on the ballot for approval or rejection by the voters.

Ryan said the earliest the convention would be held would be 2020.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.