By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Pennsylvania lawmakers are moving to thin their ranks, potentially reducing the size of the second-largest state Legislature in the country.
The state House voted Tuesday to reduce the overall number of lawmakers in Harrisburg from 253 to 191 by eliminating 50 seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate.
The House has passed similar legislation before, only to have it die in the Senate. Republicans control both chambers, but the House tends to be more ideologically driven.
House Speaker Sam Smith, who says the plan will make the Legislature more efficient, has split the effort into two bills, one targeting the House and one the Senate. That way, even if there isn’t support in the Senate to eliminate seats there, the House reduction could still fly.
Under the plan, the state’s legislative maps would be redrawn under the same process used every decade.
In this case, the state would be divided into 153 House districts representing 83,421 people, rather than the current 63,000.
Cutting Senate seats to 38 would increase size of Senate districts to about 335,000 people from the current 225,000.
Rep. Richard Stevenson, R-Mercer County, said he supported the measure the last time Smith brought it up and still supports it, even if it will put some lawmakers in tough positions politically.
Every decade redistricting creates situations where some lawmakers must run against other incumbents because boundaries have changed, Stevenson said. In this case, almost every district would change dramatically, setting up incumbent-versus-incumbent contests all across the state, he said.
That’s not a problem for Stevenson. He’s already announced he’s retiring.
“I think there would be time for people to prepare and decide what they want to do,” he said.
But a large-scale redistricting concerns Democrats. The current process is led by a five-member panel made up of the party leaders in each chamber, plus one other commissioner.
Democrats tried to get an amendment passed to shift control of redrawing the legislative map to an independent, non-partisan group. That effort would have eliminated concerns about gerrymandering, said Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County.
Barbin said Pennsylvania historically has had a large Legislature because 19th Century reformers thought more lawmakers would make it difficult for railroad titans to control the body. Barbin said he doesn’t think there’s any harm in getting rid of 50 seats in the House.
But other Democrats, including Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, who opposed the reduction on Tuesday, said the same concerns from the 19th Century remain valid. Fewer lawmakers make it easier for special interest groups to hold sway.
State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, agreed. “This is not about good government, it’s about power,” Sainato said.
One argument Smith raises in support of his plan is that it would improve efficiency within the chambers. It would also reduce cost.
“I can understand why (the speaker) likes his plan from an administrative standpoint,” said state Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, who had proposed merging the Senate and House into one chamber. The House rejected Gibbons’ plan in a near party-line vote Monday.
“I still think mine is better,” Gibbons said, adding that he intended to vote for Smith’s plan. Merging the chambers would save $90 million a year, Gibbons said. Reducing the number of lawmakers would only save about $5 million a year.
Any cost-savings might be diminished if lawmakers hire more staff to deal with the larger districts, said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County.
“Many employers have had to cut back during these hard times. I think it’s only appropriate that we take action to downsize the state Legislature,” Roae said.
“We would have to make sure that the remaining lawmakers do not hire additional staff to avoid the complete erosion of these savings.”
As a proposed Constitutional amendment, the measure must pass the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions. It would then be put before the voters in 2015, at the earliest.
While lawmakers disagreed about the merits of different aspects of the proposal, they agreed on one thing. Any effort to reduce the size of the Legislature will resonate with voters.
“I don’t think the people are going to be the problem,” said state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County.
Only New Hampshire has more state lawmakers than Pennsylvania. But New Hampshire’s 424 lawmakers work part time and are paid $200 a year. State lawmakers in Pennsylvania are paid a base salary of $83,801 a year.
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnhipa.
How they voted
House Bill 1234 — Reducing size of state House from 203 to 153 passed 148-50 (with four non-voting).
Note: There is one vacancy in House. That’s why 148 plus 50 plus four does not equal 203.
House Bill 1716 — Reducing the size of the state Senate from 50 to 38 passed 150-48 (with four non-voting).
Lawmakers of Crawford County interest cast same votes on both measures.
Republican state Rep. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford — No
Republican state Rep. Greg Lucas, R-Crawford — Yes
Republican state Rep. Brad Roae — Yes
What they said
Republican state Rep. Greg Lucas, whose Fifth District includes western Crawford County:
“The biggest reason people gave (for opposing the bills) was accessibility — that constituents would not have as much access. I don’t think that is such a big deal with technology the way it is.”
Lucas said that something would have to be done to ensure legislators would not increase the number of support staff and offices in response to the change and he expressed some skepticism that the change would generate the full $5 million in anticipated yearly saving because “legislators would have to travel more.”
Nonetheless, he said, “we need to trim the fat and the best place to trim is at the top.”
Republican state Rep. Michele Brooks, whose 17th District includes central Crawford County
“This legislation reduces the representative voice of the people and rural Pennsylvania. We have already seen this in losing a Crawford County vote in redistricting across the state to Berks County, close to Philadelphia. This is why the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau opposes this legislation and is concerned about reduced rural representation,” she said.
“Unfortunately, this reduction proposal isn’t about saving money, as it has been said that it is more about manageability of the House,” she said. “Working together is essential in passing legislation, but managing people is different than that. This legislation would empower the bureaucracy in the process in eliminating differences of opinion. This may be more manageable in controlling operations, but it is truly not being representative of our diverse state, especially on issues like agriculture, jobs, fewer governmental regulations and mandates, less spending and fewer taxes, the Second Amendment, and sportsmen’s issues.
“In the late 1960s when the current General Assembly was enlarged, it was designed to allow greater openness of the chambers and allow the people more access to their representatives. That should still be our overriding goal – making sure the people’s voices are heard.”
Republican state Rep. Brad Roae, whose Sixth District includes Meadville and eastern Crawford County
“I constantly advocate for reducing the cost of many things that are taxpayer funded,” said Roae, who was a co-sponsor of both of the House Bills. “I guarantee that a reduced total of 191 state lawmakers will cost taxpayers much less than 253. However, even if both these bills become law, we would have to make sure that the remaining lawmakers do not hire additional staff to avoid the complete erosion of these savings.”
“Again, Pennsylvania families are doing much more with less during this Great Recession,” Roae said. “Many employers have had to cut back during these hard times. I think it’s only appropriate that we take action to downsize the state Legislature.”