With Scarnati’s support, most legislative leadership now behind redistricting

With Scarnati’s support, most legislative leadership now behind redistricting

Author: Stephen Caruso/Monday, May 21, 2018/Categories: News and Views

In addressing the state press club Monday, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) showed a two-month turnaround in attitude among legislative leadership.

While he echoed Republican colleagues in a scathing denouncement of the state Supreme Court, he also shared a reluctant acknowledgment of the need to reform redistricting.

“We also need to find ways to draw better maps,” Scarnati said, after an opening that shredded the state’s highest court for throwing out legislatively approved maps before implementing its own version.

It’s an admission that so far nearly every leader in the legislature has made , with some occasional qualifications. And after years of chatter and dreaming of achieving redistricting, House and Senate chiefs now seem firmly on reform’s side.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa was the first to get behind the fight, during a State Government Committee hearing in March.

The meeting was held on an array of legislation, but the star attraction was Sen. Lisa Boscola’s (D-Northampton) SB 22, modeled after California’s much celebrated — at least by good government advocates — redistricting bill.

The bill’s original wording would have eleven randomly selected applicants vetted by the Department of State draw all congressional and state legislative maps. The commission would be split between four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents.

Advocates loved it, sometimes cheering on Boscola’s testimony and hissing at tough questions from often Republican committee members.

At the hearing, Costa’s own bill, to change only congressional redistricting, was also briefly discussed. Costa finished his testimony by announcing his support for Boscola’s bill.

Over the next month, the battle over political cartography became more heated. April saw the gut and replace of SB 22’s companion in the House State Government Committee by Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler).

Metcalfe drew the movements' ire, and his unabashed opposition and last minute maneuvering helped inspire a strong rally of advocates in the capitol.

A few weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) joined in supporting reform, and set a June 30 deadline to get it done.

“We want to be done by June, before we leave,” Corman said.

April then turned to May, and Metcalfe gutted and replaced another redistricting bill, while a final hearing took place and differences between advocates and lawmakers became clear.

But into this fray, outgoing House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) released a memo indicating his support for reform — in the form of both redistricting and open primaries, to attempt to limit the power of the partisan political fringe.

And for drawing new maps, Reed said he favored random selection of commissioners when the Senate moved away from it.

But Reed’s move brought hope to advocates, and now meant that a member of the House Republicans was in favor of change. Reed’s plan is still not yet out, but is expected this week.

That would be on top of the House Democrats, where the caucus formed the core of HB 722’s 110 cosponsors. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) expressed a willingness to work with Reed on his bill and was open to reform overall.

Back in the Senate, after some stiff back and forth negotiations, advocates and Senate State Government Chair Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) agreed to compromise language last week. It’s due to be amended into the bill tomorrow during a committee meeting.

Folmer’s across the aisle associate Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) said that he and the Democrats on the committee would support the amended language.

He pointed to the continued role of the legislature in picking commissioners and future fights over enabling legislation that aren’t ideal.

But while those were some initial observations that were concerning to the caucus, “the reality is we want it to move forward,” Williams said.

That’ll suit Scarnati, who said that despite any logjams the reform might face in the House, “we are taking a run of it” Monday.

Scarnati’s announcement was a surprise to Carol Kuniholm, the Executive Director of Fair Districts PA, but a welcome one.

Now, according to Kuniholm, they are focusing their energy on educating leery lawmakers on the new language and also making sure their mobilized advocates are happy with the compromise.

“When people read the whole thing through, they might start with ‘ew this a step back,’” Kuniholm said. “But we've had people read the whole thing through and say ‘this is a step forward.’”

However, so far, only one leader has yet to openly throw their lot in with reform — Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny). But even if the House State Government Committee remains reform's final frontier, Turzai spokesperson Neal Lesher left the door ajar.

Referring to the the newly introduced Senate language, Lesher said “we haven’t seen their new proposal yet, but will of course review it with an open mind.”

The Senate State Government Committee meets tomorrow at 12 p.m. to vote on the compromise language for SB 22 and possibly refer the bill to the whole Senate.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at stephen@mypls.com.