Redistricting reforms passes Senate State Government Committee, on its way to full vote in June

Redistricting reforms passes Senate State Government Committee, on its way to full vote in June

Author: Stephen Caruso/Tuesday, May 22, 2018/Categories: News and Views

Redistricting won its first vote in the General Assembly Tuesday to the applause of advocates packing the room.

A compromise amendment forged by Senate State Government Committee Chair Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and redistricting advocates led by Fair Districts PA was added into SB 22, then approved by all members in attendance.

Sponsored by long time reform advocate Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), the bill originally completely cut lawmakers out of the drawing of new lines.

But the new amendment now opens up room for the General Assembly to have a role, even if they aren’t actively engaged in cartography.

“I wish it was a total independent commission, but I’ve also noticed across the country, like in Ohio, there’s legislative input on their redistricting process,” Boscola said after the vote. “So it seems legislatures across the country are kinda hesitant about taking it totally out of the legislative process because it was meant to be part of the legislative process to begin with.”

Under the old language, citizens would apply to and be vetted by the Department of State, then be randomly selected as commissioners after legislators strike a few members of the pool.

Now, citizens will still apply to the Department of State, but the process of whittling them down to the eligible pool will be hammered out in later legislation.

Thus far, the only listed requirement is that no current elected or appointed state or federal official may be on the commission, or one who has been in the office in the past five years.

The rest of the qualifications will be figured out in enabling legislation that both sides will continue to work on even as constitutional the amendment moves forward. Boscola said that she expected large parts of SB 22’s original language, limiting elected officials families, lobbyists and other politicos from participating to be included in an accompanying bill.

Both advocates and legislative allies thought that keeping the amendment streamlined and leaving extra details to debate later would make it an easier sell to skeptical members

“It gives a little leeway to the legislature,” Folmer said.

From the eligible pool, the House and Senate Minority and Majority Leader pick two commissioners each.

The governor then picks three independent applicants to round out an 11-member commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents

All commissioners are subject to a two-thirds majority approval vote by the chamber they are appointed from. The governor’s appointees require two-thirds of the vote from both chambers.

“You’re not just going to be able to get some political hack in there [on the commission],” Boscola said of the threshold.

The compromise plan also gained the support of formerly skeptical committee members like Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Franklin).

“This bill isn’t perfect, but there is no such thing as a perfect bill in this fair districting thing,” Alloway said. “So we’re going to do the best that we can to get as close as we can.”

All meetings of the commission must be held in public and all communications regarding new maps must be public as well, unless the General Assembly grants exceptions.

As for the advocates, Fair District PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm has previously mentioned that the compromise could be a tough sell to gung ho advocates.

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

But overall, Kuniholm said she was happy with the amendment and the dialogue that led to it. She added that Folmer had committed to continue talks to negotiate enabling legislation, and was looking forward to how it would be received in the House.

In fact, Kuniholm even seemed optimistic about the bill’s chances with its new language in the other chamber.

“We think this amendment as passed here today would go a long way to addressing concerns we’ve heard from people in the House,” Kuniholm said, adding later that “if this came to vote on the House floor, we are quite confident it would win.”

But getting a redistricting bill through the chamber has always seemed like the major hurdle to redistricting supporters — one describing it as a “hornet’s nest.”

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) made clear his support for redistricting earlier, but hasn’t yet introduced any language. Meanwhile, House State Government Committee Chair Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) has been a vocal opponent of change, gutting and replacing two redistricting bills.

Advocates have started openly wondering if it would be possible to refer the bill to another committee to avoid Metcalfe. Candidates include the House Local Government Committee or the House Rules Committee.

Turzai has been mum on redistricting so far, but in an email yesterday, Turzai spokesperson Neal Lesher said the Speaker would review the new language “with an open mind.”

There have been some minor conversations between the two chambers leadership, according to both Boscola and Folmer. But with a June vote in sight for SB 22, Boscola said she was ready to make a tough sell.

“We’re relentless in trying to get them to come on board,” Boscola said.

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