By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times
Former state representative Chris Ross (R-158) recently was so kind as to spend an hour and a half talking with me about his 20 years representing a district that stretches from eastern and southern West Goshen west through the Bradfords and then south as far as London Britain and the Delaware border.
I had interviewed him before back in the fall of 2012. During a later conversation on the issue of gun violence, he explained at some length why it was so hard to move legislation through the system in our state’s capital, and we agreed to talk again on that specific theme.
I admire any legislator who is willing to sit down with people and bring a thoughtful perspective to the way the various levels of government can serve the public. In these politically troubled times, responsive public servants and an engaged public are what our democracy depends on to continue as we have known it. Rep. Ross offers a lot of good insights here for anyone interested in the legislative process or considering running for office.
- Was it frustrating or enjoyable for you to be in the General Assembly for 20 years?
Sometimes it was actually fun. What made me sad sometimes were constituents’ troubles and feeling I couldn’t always get done what was needed. I often communicated with families of the addicted, the unemployed, the ill, or those in insecure living arrangements, and the state has limited resources currently available to help. I was able to be part of making some incremental improvements.
Over 20 years, I saw ideas that initially looked good stop working and then become hard to fix, such as the electronic waste bill I cosponsored in 2010. Most legislators are very cautious, realizing that it is easier to be blamed for doing something than not doing it. That’s why it was so difficult to reach agreement on property tax reform or balancing the budget.
- What are the obstacles to getting a bill passed in Harrisburg?
The system is designed for things not to happen. You have to line up political interest groups and pressure the obstructors. The Founders didn’t want rapid change, and they sure got their wish! The states have tremendous power and freedom of action, compared to similar governmental units in other countries. The states are so different that this opportunity for independent action provides for interesting variety of policies that suit local demands..
Our state is very diverse; I grew to understand the forces from constituents that drive other representatives. People in our area don’t have a good sense of the rest of the state or why so many Democrats in other regions supported Trump.
- You were an undergrad history major; do you see your 20 years in Harrisburg as part of history?
Yes. During that time I saw the Republican party move right on social issues. I also saw citizens react against legislative compensation; I understand their frustration but it would be a mistake to underpay legislators. We shouldn’t exclude people in their 30’s and 40’s from state elective office. In some states, legislators are all independently wealthy, retired, or married to a wealthy spouse; that means less legislative talent. We need to compensate legislators for the downside of their job. $86,000 can seem big or not, depending on the regional cost of living.
I saw tolerance lessening during 20 years. I understand people’s anger: social change in policy on gay marriage or immigration provokes anxiety and backlash, and a desire to return to the past. We need to recognize a sense of community beyond our individual needs, for the health of society as a whole. For example, even if we aren’t sending children to a public school at the moment, we need a well-funded public school system. We need good schools or we will be less competitive in the world.
Or pension reform: we need a balance between the taxpayer and the State or school district employee. We need to calculate a total pay equation that provides both a fair salary and competitive retirement benefits. The current increasingly costly retirement system will in due course cause pressure to reduce salaries. Since most employees prefer salary over future benefits, that will drive talented people away from teaching and government service.
It’s an abuse to let salaries spike in employees’ final years on the job in order to up pensions; pensions should be based on normal salaries, not including extraordinary overtime. The current system, built in the 1960’s, planned for shorter life expectancies than now. If a police officer retires after 25 years of service, he or she might live another 40 years. Should we design a system to pay for almost twice as long a retirement as actual time at work? Certainly police might want to stop chasing and tackling criminals as they get to be 50, and they should get an appropriate contribution for their retirement for their service, but if they are in good health, shouldn’t they be expected to seek other employment?
- How about the state budget?
It’s alarming. The structural deficit is over $1,000,000,000. For example, the older population and the pension burden are both growing. Leaders in Harrisburg think they can cut the deficit without major restructuring; they expect a 7.5% annual return on investments but that doesn’t happen. The gap between income and expenses is widening; we can’t cover it by cutting services. We were close to a broad-based tax increase on both income and sales in 2015-16, but failed. Now it’s probably impossible. The gas tax increase was probably the last tax increase for a long time.
On Marcellus Shale, there should be a sliding scale depending on the price of gas; that could absorb the existing extraction fee. Some non-wealthy states with rich resources solve problems by dedicating tax revenues to defined uses, e.g., from natural gas, as PA has done from gaming revenues.
- How important is the role of sponsors and co-sponsors of bills?
It can be important. Democrats asked me to cosponsor the renewable energy portfolio. Bipartisan sponsorship helps nudge legislators out of their usual comfort zone. The bill gained rural support by including waste coal recovery, even though the Sierra Club opposed that because coal would be burned. The bill had good emissions controls; there was some pollution in the air but a lot less in streams because acid mine drainage was being reduced. The state has thousands of abandoned piles of coal leaching acid into our streams and killing the fish and all other life downstream. The bill seemed a good deal to a coalition of lawmakers.
Our system is built on compromise to find a majority. The broader the coalition and the larger the majority, the more stable and lasting the law will be. The public needs to be confident that the law will be stable, and the rules won’t be constantly changing, so they can plan their lives and investments. Without acceptance of stable law, you end up with something like Obamacare, where health care providers and insurance companies have no idea what will happen in the near future, and as a result are reluctant to offer new services or invest in their businesses.
- Do bills fare better when one party controls both chambers and the governorship or (as now) when governance is divided?
Corbett, a Republican Governor with a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, took three years to get his footing and got little of his agenda accomplished. Rendell, a Democrat with Republicans in control for much of his time as Governor, did much better accomplishing his aims.
- To what degree do legislators follow their own consciences or their view of the public interest? To what degree are they constrained by their party, donors, and other influences?
You always want to reflect your constituents’ thinking, but you also realize that you have the opportunity to delve deeper into the issues and get more background from those who are knowledgeable about what works and doesn’t. Your constituents deserve to have you use that additional information to make the best possible choices on their behalf. That means sometimes you get out ahead of your constituents, which makes some of my colleagues nervous. If you get too far out ahead too often, you can lose the trust of your district and run the risk of losing your seat to a challenger.
- How important are comments that legislators receive from individual citizens and from interest groups?
If 30+ constituents comment on a given topic, legislators start to freak out. But they have to ask how representative the comments are of a population of 62,000. We look for standard form letters and try to figure out the group behind them. But even 30 comments from an interest group can’t be ignored; we figure out if they have good points. And we need to be respectful.
- Can you please say more about how bills move through the legislature?
Some good ideas just drag on for years without getting through the process. To get a bill passed into law, you need a lot of things to go right, and it helps to be little lucky, too. Can you get help from the public to press your colleagues? Can you neutralize the concerns of those opposed? It helps to be a “nice guy” that people want to see succeed, as well.
- Can you describe some bills that moved more or less quickly than you expected?
Liquor privatization has been an agenda item for over 50 years. By the way, wholesale privatization is most important and least understood part of this issue, because it affects the variety of products available and the competitiveness and success of our restaurant industry, and involves relatively few state employees. Most people only consider the retail side, the State Stores.
Pension reform is a classic example of why some bills are hard to move, because we have to undergo painful change immediately to get relief that will only appear much later. We have to start turning the ocean liner now, but there will be a long period before the state sees savings.
Gun violence prevention: the status quo is locked in and we can’t see a way forward. The public hasn’t rallied around one clear idea with perhaps the exception of background checks. Ironically, the threat of gun control legislation has actually provoked more gun sales, and after Trump’s election gun sales are down.
- Do you have advice to Harrisburg on making the legislative process work more productively?
I’m concerned to find another approach to the current attack mode, where some treat all government as corrupt. People need to act intelligently, professionally. The attitude that “anyone can do this job without preparation” is alarming. The citizen legislator has an important place in state government, but you can’t ignore history and the systems in place.
There are practical reasons for some of the formalities and traditions. We never address other members from the floor, only the Speaker, in order to depersonalize things. We aren’t allowed to mention other members’ names or question another member’s motives or sincerity, and this keeps the debate focused on the issues, not personality.
Legislators do tend to live in boxes; I hope Carolyn Comitta (just elected in the 156th district) will see the value of talking to diverse members. I learned that during two terms in the minority. Democrats are both urban and rural; from serving on the Urban Affairs Committee I learned that city and suburbs are very different too.
- Do you have advice for citizens who hope to advance legislation they believe in or stop legislation they oppose?
Have regular contact with your representatives; give them information, understand what moves them, and organize around an issue.
Letters to the editor don’t make much difference to legislators but can rally the public. Strength is in numbers; build a coalition, which may require some compromises. The grassroots are important: understand the issue and find a group.
Individuals may have a compelling story that changes a legislator’s thinking. But don’t aim for a home run all at once. Renewable energy, drop-in senior centers, and kidney disease testing were gradual victories.
- Do you have advice for anyone who hopes to promote good government in Harrisburg or run for office?
Beating an incumbent requires finding weaknesses.
Support those motivated legislators who believe in good government. Most do want to get something done, though the screamers get the most attention.
Advocacy groups should not take an “all or nothing” attitude. It’s scary when some are unhappy even if they get what they ask for. Some hold back needed compromises but the more intelligent groups know when to ease up.
- Do you have any plans for more local civic involvement, writing, or talks?
I look forward to enjoying teaching; my grad students in public policy at Georgetown this spring are potential state government people. I’ll talk with them about the technical skills needed to craft bills. And I might do some writing.
I also hope to have the opportunity to talk to people about ways to improve the system so that we support those seeking broad-based compromises and practical solutions to issues. There are some interesting ideas out there about candidate selection, open primaries and redistricting that need to explored by all of us. I’d like to contribute to that discussion.