Another push begins to shrink Pennsylvania Legislature

Speaker introducing bills to trim House, amend constitution

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HARRISBURG -- From his vantage on the rostrum of the Pennsylvania House, Speaker Sam Smith knows what he sees: too many representatives.

Take the 203 seats in the House of Representatives and add the 50 in the Senate, and Pennsylvania has one of the largest legislatures in the country. (New Hampshire has 400 seats in its House, but rank-and-file lawmakers earn $100 a year there, compared with $83,801 in Pennsylvania.)

Efforts to condense the Pennsylvania House date at least to the late 1960s, when delegates to a constitutional convention rejected such plans.

Now, Mr. Smith, who was elected speaker in January 2011, says he believes the size of the chamber has exacerbated difficulties finding common ground.

"At our current size, I feel that sometimes the members just don't have the time to communicate with each other, in the sense of getting an understanding of what the other person's trying to do," he said. "I might disagree on a public policy decision, but if I understand you and you understand me, it still makes it better."

The House last year considered a proposal by Mr. Smith to shrink the House membership. But it was amended on the House floor to also reduce Senate membership, and the Senate took no action on the bill.

This year, Mr. Smith is introducing two separate bills, with the hope that a reduction of the House by 50 members, as proposed in his HB 1234, can be considered by itself. Shrinking the Legislature would require an amendment of the state constitution, which itself requires a bill to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions, then approved by the voters themselves via referendum.

"Comparing to other states, being around 50 is kind of about average for the size of the state Senate," he said. "I really focus primarily on the House and what I see as a breakdown in understanding and communication."

More than 60 House members, including a number of Democrats, have signed onto the proposal. And in the Senate, Elder Vogel, a Republican from New Sewickley, and Judy Schwank, a Democrat from Berks County, have their own Legislature-trimming plans, which they said could save the state money.

If 50 senators can represent the state, Mr. Vogel asked in an interview, why does it take 203 representatives? His plan, SB 324, would trim the Senate to 30 members and the House to 121.

"It's a lot of extra money we are spending," he said. "With the way we have technology today, we can do with less legislators, because we don't have horses and buggies anymore. We have modern technology."

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, echoed that thinking. Mr. Pileggi is signing on as a co-sponsor of Mr. Vogel's proposal and said he strongly supports reducing the size of both chambers.

"There's no logical reason that we have so many senators and so many representatives," he said. "It purely is a product of history rather than any sort of plan."

Like Mr. Smith in the House, Ms. Schwank says she believes a smaller Legislature might do better work. While she already supported the idea, she said the most recent spring budget season -- with the failure of the General Assembly to pass a transportation bill prized by the Senate -- convinced her the size of the Legislature makes it harder to advance bills.

"The transportation bill, I think that was the biggest disappointment," she said. "And I think [that] brings into focus how hard it is when there are these large voting blocs that keep legislation from moving forward."

Her proposal, SB 336, would cut the Senate to 40 members and the House to 121.

The Legislature grew to about its current size with the constitutional convention of 1872 and 1873, according to "A History of Pennsylvania," a 1973 state history by Philip S. Klein of Penn State University and Ari Hoogenboom of Brooklyn College.

"Reasoning [with dubious validity] that it is more difficult to bribe a larger group, it virtually doubled both the House and the Senate, to 200 and to 50 members, respectively," the history says.

More than 100 years later, at a constitutional convention in the late 1960s, advocates for reducing the Legislature's size included future Gov. Bob Casey, former Gov. Bill Scranton and the novelist James Michener, according to an account in The Pittsburgh Press.

The last few House seats were added in the early 1960s, leaving the chamber at its present size, according to Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

"At a constitutional convention filled with people who were fairly reform-minded in 1967, they couldn't do it," he said. "There's been no serious debate since then."

That convention took place at a time when many states were changing their legislatures. Thirty-four states changed the size of their legislative bodies during the 1960s and 1970s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Talk now of shrinking the Legislature would likely be received well by voters, given a general dissatisfaction with goings-on in Harrisburg, said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. But that doesn't mean it's imminent.

"Any type of reform that seems to shrink the number of elected officials in Harrisburg would probably resonate pretty well with the general electorate," he said. "However, any time we come to the question of an institution shrinking itself, you're looking at a significant uphill battle."

state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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