Study: More ‘big-city bills’ fail

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HARRISBURG -- It's an age-old question in a Legislature divided among rural, suburban and urban lawmakers: Who rules in Harrisburg?

One recent multi-state study suggests large, urban delegations are less effective at moving bills in their legislatures -- and as the size of the delegation from a city grows, so does the potential for political infighting.

"Big cities lose so often because size leads to damaging divisions," said the study by Gerald Gamm, an associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester, and Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

The study found big-city bills (from cities with more than 100,000 people) failed at higher rates than bills from smaller places.

The study examined only so-called "district bills" -- bills where a city or other single locality is seeking the authority from the state to do something -- such as a city seeking to impose a tax only on its own residents.

Several Harrisburg political observers said they don't see Pittsburgh legislators as highly divided, however.

"I don't see [Rep.] Paul Costa trying to be the big man on campus. I don't see [Rep.] Dan Frankel trying to be the big man on campus. I don't see [House Minority Leader] Frank Dermody trying to be the big man on campus," said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, referring to several Pittsburgh-area Democratic representatives.

"They stick together better than most large delegations," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg Republican strategist.

That's not to say there are no ideological or personal differences within the group, but they tend to be united on matters concerning Pittsburgh.

"Generally speaking, when they come to the table, they're cohesive," said Michael Manzo, a vice president at public relations and lobbying firm Triad Strategies, and the longtime chief of staff to former House Speaker Bill DeWeese.

Mr. Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, said despite his party often being in the minority in recent years, he can point to several major legislative successes for Pittsburgh where he and his colleagues were fairly unified.

Among them: The vote to enable the "drink tax" in Allegheny County, a deal that forced UPMC and Highmark to extend their contract until the end of 2014, last fall's transportation bill including funding for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, and legislation passed in December to control pension costs in Allegheny County.

"We are obviously overwhelmingly Democratic. So there are many issues we can't address: what gets kicked out of a committee, what amendments get proposed. At this point, we don't control either chamber or the governor's office," Mr. Frankel said. "But I'm very proud to stand and say, these are big deal things that we have gotten done."

While Mr. Frankel counts transportation funding as a success because the bill ultimately passed, a vote on the bill likewise highlighted a split among local Democrats -- with Mr. Frankel and Reps. Erin Molchany, Jake Wheatley and Ed Gainey voting in favor of the bill and Reps. Dom Costa, Paul Costa, Dan Deasey, Adam Ravenstahl and Harry Readshaw voting against it.

While the bill contained millions in mass transit funding, including funds for the Allegheny County Port Authority, it also contained a provision opposed by a number of unions that raised the threshold for public projects that must pay a union-scale wage.

Ms. Molchany and Mr. Readshaw will face each other in a primary later this year, due to redistricting.

The study did not include the Pennsylvania Legislature but looked at Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

It examined more than 1,700 bills in those states from the years 1880 to 2000. It also only studied delegation size in the House, not the Senate.

"Big city bills fail at very high rates ... the biggest delegations have the highest failure rate," the study stated.

Pittsburgh has nine representatives in the state House, all Democrats. Philadelphia has 28 representatives (though two have only tiny parts of the city); all but one Philadelphia representative are Democrats.

The researchers also examined a number of other theories to explain why big city bills might fail: urban-rural hostilities, partisan division, racial or ethnic differences or the higher number of bills that would come from having more representatives. It didn't draw any major conclusions, though.

"Although animus against immigrants seems to explain some of the challenges faced by big city bills, [no] factor proves more important that the large size of urban delegations," researchers wrote.

Other Harrisburg observers said measuring the number of bills passed doesn't tell the whole story, however.

"A big concern for all legislators -- urban and rural -- is the funding they can bring back to their districts," said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats.

"Number of bills could be irrelevant," agreed Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland. "Often it's the budget -- that's the bill that matters, and some of the code bills that go with the budget. It's just one bill, but it can be loaded to benefit one area."

Mr. Gamm, the Rochester professor, said additional research is in the works to examine how state budget expenditures are divided among rural and urban delegations. Added Mr. Bloom, "The never-ending story of Pennsylvania politics -- and it has been that way probably since the 1600s -- has been urban versus rural."

Kate Giammarise:, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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