HARRISBURG — The push to let voters decide whether to amend the Constitution to cut 52 seats from the state House has hit a speed bump.
The state House amended the bill late Monday night, a move that means the measure will likely not be ready for the ballot until 2019.
A planned final vote Tuesday night on the amended legislation was postponed, though the measure may come up for a vote later in the week.
The original measure would have trimmed the size of the state House from 203 to 151 members. The legislation was modified to include language also cutting 12 seats in the state Senate.
The changes would be made by eliminating the districts during the redistricting process following the 2020 Census.
A legislative cost estimate found that the reductions would save the state government about $23 million a year — up to $7 million a year in costs for the Senate and up to $16 million in costs for the state House.
Supporters say the move is a stalling tactic by opponents of the plan.
Others, including state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, disagree.
Sainato said the move to change the bill was intended to improve the legislation, not just stall it.
Sainato said he thinks cutting the number of representatives in the state House is a bad idea but believes that if it's going to be done, it should be done to both chambers to keep the proportion of state representatives to senators the same.
“We know that if we pass them as separate bills, the Senate won't pass their cuts,” he said.
He said bigger districts will make it harder for “average” people to run for office because campaigning will be more expensive.
When the 50 state senators are added, the Pennsylvania General Assembly, with 253 lawmakers, is the largest full-time legislature in the country. Only New Hampshire has more lawmakers, with 424. They are part-time and are paid $200, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Pennsylvania House members are paid $87,180. Only California pays its state lawmakers more.
Last month, when the legislation was considered by the House state government committee, Republican state Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County said that even trimming 52 members means the Pennsylvania House would still have more lawmakers than New York's State Assembly.
If the legislature loses 52 members, House members will represent an average of about 80,000 constituents, compared to the roughly 60,000 people per legislative district now.
The state Senate passed the legislation trimming the state House but has not moved on legislation to cut the Senate's number in the past. Lawmakers in the Senate have said in the past that because there are already fewer members in their chamber, there's been less enthusiasm for cutting the number of senatorial districts.
There is a still a potential pathway for the measure to get on the ballot this year, said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County.
The state Senate could erase the House amendment and approve a measure identical to the bill that passed both chambers of the General Assembly in 2017, Everett said. If that happens, the House could get the measure on the ballot by approving the Senate version. To get on a Constitutional amendment question on the ballot, the legislation must pass the General Assembly unchanged in two separate sessions.
If that happens, it will really test House members to see where they stand on cutting the size of the Legislature, said state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County.
“There are some people who don't want to do it,” Everett said. “And there are people who think that if you're going to cut the House, you should cut the Senate too.”
State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder County, said the move seems like a stalling tactic that opponents hope will slow the momentum of the push to trim the size of the Legislature.
Nesbit said that critics of the measure say that cutting the number of lawmakers will weaken the political muscle of rural Pennsylvania.
It's a concern that may have merit, he said, pointing to the ongoing tussle between the governor and those who want to tax the drilling industry against those who oppose the severance tax.
Still, Nesbit said he supports the proposal to cut the number of seats.
“I still have to side with reducing the size of government,” he said.
Keller said that he thinks the suggestion that trimming the number of seats will diminish the influence of rural communities is a red herring.
Any cuts will be done proportionally and there's no reason to believe that there will be more rural lawmakers targeted than suburban and urban representatives, he said.
If districts are larger geographically, it could conceivably create districts that include both rural and suburban characteristics, Keller said. That would mean lawmakers from those districts might come to the Capitol with a greater understanding of a wider variety of perspectives, he said.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.