HARRISBURG – With the governor’s race in high gear, greater emphasis is being placed on rewriting Pennsylvania’s constitution.

The prospect of a new governor taking office in January is driving some of the fuss over constitutional changes.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association joined the fray last week by announcing the formation of a review commission to offer recommendations on what sort of constitutional changes should be taken up.

The last major changes came during the 1960s when a constitutional convention addressed a limited number of issues that were put before the voters for approval.
The late Gov. Raymond Shafer was the catalyst for launching the 1967 constitutional convention by pushing for the voter referendum that authorized it. Some think a governor’s support is necessary for any repeat of that venture in coming years.
None of the gubernatorial candidates are running on this issue, but if the winner of the November election were to take up the idea the most opportune time would be when he has the political winds at his back.

The drumbeat to have a new convention, or at least a coordinated set of amendments put before voters, started in the wake of the controversial 2005 legislative pay raise which was repealed several months later in the face of voter outrage.
But the constitutional idea hasn’t really caught fire with the state’s political leaders or coalescing outsider movements like the Tea Party activists.

The PBA commission plans to focus on constitutional provisions concerning the Legislature and district reapportionment, taxation, public education and local government.

Composed mostly of lawyers, legal scholars and judges, the commission will take 18 months to offer its recommendations.

“Government in the Keystone State clearly is not working for Pennsylvanians,” said PBA president Clifford Haines. “In rapidly changing times and conditions, our citizens should have the opportunity to call for a reexamination of the effectiveness and structure of their government.”

The PBA played a role in the 1967 convention. A who’s who of prominent political figures, including future governors Robert P. Casey and Dick Thornburgh, were delegates.

Whether the elites would dominate a new convention at a time when anti-establishment anger and political polarization is on the rise is uncertain.
“The citizens of Pennsylvania should decide what they want to consider at a convention, not any special interest group,” said Tim Potts, founder of Democracy Rising, a Capitol watchdog group.
PBA’s 18-month timetable if adhered to would push off a voter referendum on any amendments until 2013, he added.

A coalition of groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, recently published a citizen’s guide to a modern constitutional convention. It suggests ways to increase public participation in convention proceedings, including use of interactive technology.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail: rswift@timesshamrock.com