Bill to resize state legislature moves to Senate, but not without controversy

Bill to resize state legislature moves to Senate, but not without controversy

Author: The PLS Reporter/Monday, April 30, 2018/Categories: News and Views

If backers of a bill in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives succeed, there will be 52 fewer representatives and 12 fewer senators in the General Assembly following the 2020 U.S. Census.

The House voted 109-80 on March 13 to pass House Bill 153, which reduces the legislature’s size. Proponents argue that a smaller legislature will make floor discussion clearer and more manageable between members, inevitably increasing district sizes to as fewer legislators represent more people.

As a constitutional amendment, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill), must be passed twice in identical form in two separate legislative sessions. It received bipartisan support, and must be passed by the legislature this year to be placed on the ballot during the November 2018 election.

“I believe genuinely that the House is too big. 151 [members] is a reasonable number, it goes to a 3 to 1 ratio and applies even more in caucus for better discussion and clearer debate,” Rep. Knowles said.

While moving through the House this session, an amendment was added to the bill to reduce the size of the Senate from 50 to 38 members. The bill was passed last year, with the amendment added this year, and is not expected to pass in the Senate with the proposed reduction to the number of senators.

“Last session a different version of House Bill 153, reducing the size of the General Assembly, was passed by both chambers. It is our belief that the policy decision regarding this issue had been finalized last session,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson). “Discussions continue to take place regarding House Bill 153; however given that the House did not pass the identical bill that was agreed to in 2016, if the bill advances in its current form now, voters could not be presented with the referendum ballot question this year.”

Although uncertain of the exact motives, Rep. Knowles claimed the amendment was added in an attempt to block it from reaching a vote.

“Certain people don’t want to vote because they know it is difficult and they don’t want to eliminate their jobs,” he said. “It is a constitutional amendment, and the people of Pennsylvania will have the opportunity to decide.”

If it reaches the Senate, the bill could face one of two fates - remain stagnant until it dies out, or move to the floor for a vote, according to Rep. Knowles. Another option, he said, would allow the Senate to revert to the prior printer number, effectively the earlier version, and send the bill back to the House for a final vote, sans Senate approval.

Rep. Knowles expressed frustration toward the bill’s supporters who voted in favor of the bill last session, only to reject it the next time the bill appeared on the House floor.

“A handful of people on the Republican side voted against it last time and stated their reasons. I disagree, but kind of understand. I don’t see what the 139 would have to not vote for it again,” Rep. Knowles said.

Rep. Jeffrey Pyle (R-Armstrong) opposed HB 153, and argued that he was not elected based on the matter of efficiency.

“I wasn’t sent to Harrisburg to be manageable,” he said. “I’m looking for a fair shake, and I don’t think HB 153 does that. If Jerry [Knowles] wants to be manageable, knock yourself out.”

He added that each district has its own demographics, and smaller, more rural, districts will most likely be merged among others if the bill is passed.

“I don’t want my people taken off the map - it’s not fair,” he said. “If Jerry is attached, maybe he should give up his district right now.”

Though some legislators, including Rep. Pyle, have said the bill will make districts unmanageably large to oversee, Rep. Knowles pointed out that district sizes are much larger in other states, including New York and Illinois, which have 109,000 and 129,000 constituents per district, respectively. If passed, Pennsylvania’s districts will increase from about 63,000 to 84,000 people.

“With technology you’ve got so many things at your disposal,” Rep. Knowles said. “They may have to work harder, but I don’t have a problem with that and neither should they. Quite honestly, I don’t think the Senate is such a big deal - the current size of the Senate is reasonable.”

He emphasized that Pennsylvania’s redistricting issues are separate from the decision to resize the General Assembly, and should not be compared when deciding whether to support HB 153.

“These are two separate issues - whatever is playing out with redistricting, that’s a separate issue,” Rep. Knowles said. “That’s an issue that we need to deal with no matter what, and I think it’s unfair that people tie those two together. This is a pretty simple bill to explain - do you agree or disagree that the people of Pennsylvania should have the opportunity to decide [the size of the legislature].”

Rep. Pyle argued that there is no methodology to the changes, and suggested that it may not be long before the change in size turns into a “big ole political clambake.” He also said Rep. Knowles is handing the district map to the Democrats “on a silver platter.”

“Redistricting is going to be a birthday party compared to this,” he said.

Cutting legislative positions could also lead to a decrease in the state’s budgetary needs, even if the staff members of former legislators are kept on the payroll, according to Rep. Knowles.

“If we keep every office and employee, you still won’t have to pay the salaries of the representatives,” he said. “There’s going to be a savings, make no mistake about that.”

With the senators included, the Pennsylvania General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country and pays its representatives $87,180 a year, but is second largest in size behind New Hampshire.

“This bill is not going to save money - we’ll have increased geography, and will have to hire more staff,” Rep. Pyle countered.

Rep. Knowles said he has communicated with the Senate on the bill’s urgency and hopes a decision can be made by early August.

 

Jenna Wise is a legislative reporting intern with Pennsylvania Legislative Services.

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