State House has chance to think big, get smaller

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Is America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature really about to reform or is it just playing the longest game of charades on record?

The state House voted overwhelmingly last week to shrink itself from 203 members to 153. That would still leave the body far larger than most; the average state house has 108 members, and similarly populated Ohio and Illinois get by with 99 and 118 representatives, respectively.

Sill, shedding roughly a quarter of the representatives would be fantastic. This could be, to paraphrase the old Miller Lite commercials, everything you've always wanted in a statehouse -- and less. There never has been a compelling need to send so many people to Harrisburg to spend so much time not getting much done.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, led the charge for governmental liposuction, and the House voted, 148-50, to downsize itself. Then it voted a hair more enthusiastically, 150-48, on a second bill to cut the Senate from 50 to 38 members. Thus the chances for reform look good, right?

Not on your autographed picture of Sen. John "Bluto" Blutarsky. The reason for pessimism has nothing to do with the bills' worthiness and everything to do with mass psychology.

Cutting both houses by roughly the same percentage may look fair, but the Pennsylvania Senate has never been wildly out of whack with those of other states. The average state has 39 senators, but 50 is hardly an outrageous number. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states with that many or more.

Meantime, even after this proposed reduction our House would have more full-time members than California (80 members), Texas and New York (both 150) and, well, every other state. (New Hampshire has 400 representatives, but they're part-timers who earn $100 a year while ours rake in $83,801.)

Mr. Smith knows this, which is why he introduced separate bills so that each chamber's cut can be determined independently. A year ago, when he introduced a single bill that targeted the House alone, his colleagues added an amendment to cut the Senate to 38 members. That was predictably, and probably intentionally, a poison pill. The House passed the bill, 140-49, but the Senate never even considered it.

So Mr. Smith is giving the senators the opportunity to cut the House alone if they so choose. If you're a Pennsylvania senator, what would you do?

Voting yes on House Bill 1234 to reduce the house of others is an easy call. That's where the bloat is.

The Senate is a different story. Dividing Pennsylvania into 38 senatorial districts would make our rural slices larger than Pennsylvania farmers may like. It could require a longer drive to get face time.

That shouldn't be a persuasive argument. Most voters can still easily pick up a phone or shoot an email, and there are no known reports of farmers in Kentucky (38 senators) or Ohio (33 senators) whining that their lives would be so much easier if they just could just pay for more senators in the capital. Still, the Pennsylvania Senate can make a case that it's the right size already.

Even Mr. Smith focused on his own chamber.

"There's some anecdotal evidence that suggests that when a group gets much bigger than 150," he said, "it's difficult for the group to remain cohesive and focused on the subject that's before them."

Anyone who has watched the General Assembly in action -- excuse me, I mean "inaction" -- would have to agree. So the worry is that senators will vote to reduce the House but vote against reducing their own chamber, and then the lower chamber will rebel against any change at all.

You see, because this is a constitutional amendment, each chamber must pass the bill in two consecutive legislative sessions. So, barring any amending of the bill, the question would come back to the House when a new session convenes in 2015. Only if it passes both chambers a second time can it be brought to the people for a vote. (That constitutional referendum should pass overwhelmingly.)

I wouldn't bet the mortgage that the Pennsylvania House will still agree with its speaker, that it can be a more effective group while saving the taxpayers millions of dollars, if the senators don't cut themselves, too. But voters should demand that they suck it up. At 153 members, the House would still be almost half-again as large as the average state house.

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


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