Brian O'Neill: Shrink the state House? Yes, we can
April 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
A joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate meets in Harrisburg in February.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
America’s Largest Full-Time State Legislature is halfway through a process that should offer the citizenry a chance to save Pennsylvania tens of millions of dollars each year and leave us with a more efficient General Assembly in the bargain.
The plan can be summed up in a word: Shrink.
House Bill 153 would downsize the state House from 203 to 151 members and leave the 50-member Senate intact. It was approved by the Legislature before the last election but, as a constitutional amendment, it must be approved in a second session before it’s put before the voters in a referendum.
It would be hard to imagine voters saying, no, let’s keep the expensive, supersized version of a statehouse we have. Or is watching the state budget go over deadline a rite of summer you can’t live without?
Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill County, is sponsoring the bill and Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, and Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, are the lead co-sponsors. The House approved it 139-56 on May 5, 2015, and the Senate approved it 43-6 in January 2016.
Some of us have been calling for this reform for more than decade, so this journey already has taken longer than the one that led to the moon landing. Even this proposed slimming will leave our state House with one more representative than New York and Texas, and plenty more than Illinois (118), Michigan (110), Ohio (99) and California (80), to name just a few. Pennsylvania would still be tied with Connecticut and Maine for the fifth-largest House in the United States.
We should take the deal. Though one wonders if the same representatives who voted for it before will be as keen to do so again, knowing this time this game of legislative musical chairs will be for keeps.
“It will be interesting to see,” Mr. Knowles said. “Some of our colleagues are realizing that this is for real.”
But he says he’s confident. The truth is our current structure is something of an accident. There was a map-drawing mistake at the 1968 Constitutional Convention, he said. After the districts were drawn up, someone noticed there were 203 seats instead of the 201 they’d settled upon, but the drafters essentially said “we’re tired and we’re going to bed.”
Makes you wonder if Thomas Jefferson was a bit whipped when he came up with “unalienable rights” in the summer of 1776.
Mr. Knowles said he’s been persuaded a smaller body will lead to more consensus. The districts will be about a third larger but modern technology makes it much easier for today’s legislators to stay in touch with their constituents and vice versa.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, feels the same way. He chairs the State Government Committee and he’s waiting for a green light from leaders to take the bill to the floor. The budget and pension reform have greater priority but reducing the size of the Legislature is also “on the front burner for me.”
He once was on the other side of this argument. Now he can see a representative being able to serve 85,000 constituents as easily as he or she serves 63,000. His own booming district has gone north of 70,000 with no notable difficulty in staying in touch with the people, he said. It was during his 19 years in Harrisburg that the cell phone and other gadgets changed our lives, making representatives much more easily accessible than when 203 districts were drawn up.
“I know this is something the electorate wants to have put before them,” he said.
We do. Pennsylvania spends an average of more than a million dollars per lawmaker (once salaries, pensions, staff, offices, travel and per diems are tallied), and too often they’ve shown they can’t get out of their own way. Those millions would be better spent on schools, roads or just about anything else.
We now live in an era when any citizen reading an online newspaper column can click on a word and see how everyone in the state House voted on an an issue. From there, a savvy reader can find the representative’s office phone number with a few more clicks.
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