Allegheny County loses seats in state House, Senate
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HARRISBURG -- A new set of legislative maps that received preliminary approval Thursday would strip Allegheny County of one seat each in the state Senate and House to reflect eastward population shifts.
A previous set of maps, rejected by the state's top court in January, had merged the House districts of two Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania, but the new plan maintains both of those seats. It still would move to Allentown the district of former Brookline Democratic Rep. Chelsa Wagner, now the Allegheny County controller.
It also would send to the Poconos the district of Sen. Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican who was convicted last month of 14 criminal counts, rather than the seat of Sen. Jim Brewster, a Democrat from McKeesport.
Primary elections will proceed this month according to the existing legislative maps. The new districts are expected to take effect no sooner than the 2014 elections.
The process of approving new boundaries for the 50 state Senate districts and 203 state House districts -- which was to have been the basis for this year's legislative elections -- was upended when the Supreme Court declared an initial plan unconstitutional. A majority of the justices said that plan split too many municipalities in an attempt to create districts of equal population.
They ordered the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, made up of the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate and a former Superior Court judge who serves as chairman, to redraw those boundaries.
The commission meeting Thursday was the first public viewing of the revised maps. While the new House plan was met mostly with support from both party's leaders, the Senate plan was a source of disagreement.
After plans offered by the Democratic and Republican leaders in that chamber failed to receive a majority vote, commission chairman Stephen McEwen presented his own plan, which he described as a compromise.
The plan differs from the one presented by the Senate Republicans in that it would move the district occupied by Ms. Orie rather than Mr. Brewster's district.
"I believe this is the kind of decision that should be driven as much as possible by Census Bureau population data," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
Mr. Pileggi said he understood that Mr. McEwen proposed the change to avoid moving a district whose occupant is running for re-election or in the middle of a term. Mr. Brewster is running unopposed for another four-year term, while Ms. Orie no longer will be eligible to serve in the Senate after she is sentenced May 21.
Despite his objection, Mr. Pileggi said he would support the preliminary plan so that redistricting could move forward. His counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, did not, saying the plan would split more communities than the plans of the Senate and House. Mr. Costa did say, however, that he was glad Mr. Brewster's district would be preserved.
"We're pleased that they saw that there was a value in maintaining the 45th District in Allegheny County, specifically the Mon Valley," he said afterward. "However, there are a number of other parts of the plan that we think we need to continue to talk about."
The commission approved the preliminary plan 4-1, with Mr. Costa opposed. House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said he would support the plan as a preliminary measure so that redistricting could proceed.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, defended the constitutionality of the plan deemed unacceptable by the Supreme Court but said he would support the new plan in the spirit of compromise.
A public hearing is scheduled for May 2.
The two western representatives whose districts would have merged under earlier maps said they were glad the new plan would maintain both of their seats.
Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, said he looked forward to continuing to serve his constituents.
"When the first map came out, I thought, well, it's basically a partisan map and just the way the cookie crumbles," he said. "I was accepting it but never knowing the Supreme Court would throw it out."
Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he was pleased to have another map and one he said appeared to present more fair boundaries.
First Published April 13, 2012 12:32 pm