It's reruns again for reducing Legislature

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The bill to shrink America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature had been dead for almost a month before I tripped over its corpse.

Things had been looking pretty good for that bill this spring. The state House voted overwhelmingly in April to slim down from 203 to 153 members and -- in a last-minute change -- to downsize the Senate from 50 to 38 members.

Now I suspect that Senate slimming might have been the purposeful insertion of a poison pill. The Senate has never really needed to shrink. It's our outsized House, which has more full-time members than California (80 members), Texas and New York (both 150) and -- oh, hell -- every other state.

Even if it shrank to 153 members, Pennsylvania would retain more full-time reps per capita than all the other big states. What we're talking about here isn't revolutionary, it's a way to save tens of millions of dollars every year and probably have a more efficient system in the bargain.

Alas, House Bill 153 now seems to have been killed so quietly you may as well have handed the Senate leadership a silencer. After the bill passed 140-49 in the House, it went to the Senate and was referred to its State Government Committee. It hasn't been heard from since.

What happened? Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, had favored downsizing like his colleague in the House, Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney. Both men maintained that a smaller body could still have a wide range of opinions without being unwieldy. Back in April, Mr. Pileggi expected a Senate vote within a few months.

So I waited four months and emailed his office last week. That's when Erik Arneson, his communications and policy director, let me know that this downsizing bill slept with the fishes. Changing the size of the Legislature requires a change in the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the deadline for such changes has passed.

Article XI of the constitution requires the secretary of the commonwealth to record the House and Senate votes and have those yeas and nays published "three months before the next general election, in at least two newspapers in every county in which such newspapers shall be published ... "

In other words, this bill had to pass "in time for publication by Aug. 6," Mr. Arneson said, "three months before the next general election."

Funny nobody mentioned that back in April.

There is no end of suspects for the death of this bill. Perhaps the House's overwhelming vote in favor came precisely because its members knew the bill would go nowhere in the Senate. Thus they could look good voting for reform and not risk actually losing their jobs some years down the road when 50 seats were removed and the map of Pennsylvania was split "only" 153 ways.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was gung ho for this reform back in 2006, when he said downsizing the Legislature "needs to be done." Did he change his mind? I left calls about this bill for Mr. Scarnati at his Harrisburg office before and after the Labor Day weekend, but he never called back.

Mr. Scarnati appoints the committee chairmen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, chairs the State Government Committee. He didn't return my calls either.

This never was going to be easy. Any constitutional change has to be approved by two consecutive sessions of both houses of the Legislature before it goes to the people for a vote. So now we need to start all over.

Unless lawmakers believe that their jobs are in immediate danger (as they did when they voted to repeal their unconstitutional pay grab in 2005) the impetus for reform is slight. Yet I retain hope. Perhaps it's no coincidence that I am a Pirates fan.

I've said before that rooting for the Bucs is like watching "Gilligan's Island." We keep tuning in because we don't want to miss the moment when the rescue finally comes.

Well, I'm pretty sure I wrote my first column in favor of a smaller state Legislature back in 1994. That was the second year of what has become a historic 19-season losing streak for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club. I should be discouraged, but both this reform and the Pirates have gone further this year than they have in the past 19.

So let's fire up another rerun. Shrinking America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature may be a tough go, but it can't be any harder than turning a coconut into a radio.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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