Two-thousand eighteen has barely begun, and Republicans are already finding it difficult to keep a New Years resolution that they had made in the previous legislative session. House Bill 153, introduced by Representative Jerry Knowles (R, Berks, Carbon, and Schuylkill counties), with co-sponsorship from the Republican leadership, passed both the House and Senate in the last legislative session. It needs to pass both chambers again during the current legislative session in order to be placed on the ballot this year. For almost a year, however, this bill has been stalled in the State Government Committee, chaired by Darryl Metcalfe, (R., Butler).
The bill would reduce the size of Pennsylvania’s lower house from 203 members to 151. Our State, with 253 General Assembly members, has the largest and the second highest paid full time legislature in the country. The elimination of these 52 House seats would save taxpayers $15 million a year. Polls suggest that voters would support a constitutional amendment to reduce our legislature’s size. Why then, would House Republicans stymie a bill that they had worked so hard to pass in the previous legislative session, especially one that appears to have so much popular support? And why had Democrats not supported this bill in the past? The reason appears to lie in the fact that Pennsylvania is one of most gerrymandered states in the country, and when this bill was first passed, it appeared that gerrymandering would remain in place throughout the next decade. Reducing the House size while leaving current redistricting procedures in place could actually exacerbate the political imbalance in the Pennsylvania legislature. As the Express-Times has explained it: “Downsizing the Legislature without a fairer, more independent way of redistricting is like going on a diet to squeeze into a cheap pair of shoes. If they still rub you the wrong way, what good is the savings?”
Due to the work of Fair Districts PA, HB 722 and SB 22 have been introduced in the General Assembly, and both bills have enjoyed bi-partisan support. The courts have also become involved with this issue. The Public Interest Law Center is representing the League of Women Voters in one case that will be heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court later this month. Although Commonwealth Court judge P. Kevin Brobson could not find a legal basis for disqualifying the current Congressional maps, he did agree that the Pennsylvania map was drawn according to a political agenda.
So, with the legislative and judicial sectors of Pennsylvania’s government indicating a desire for fairer legislative districts, the reduction in State government is looking a lot less enticing to Republicans at this time. If we can however, elect more civic minded people into the General Assembly, we can acquire a leaner, less expensive, and more fairly represented legislature.