During Tuesday’s consideration of House Bill 153 – a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide whether to reduce the state House of Representatives to 151 members – Democrats on the House State Government Committee used the legislative process to offer an amendment to the bill that resulted in a proxy war over redistricting.
The bill must pass in identical form in this, its second consecutive legislative session, before the question about reducing the size of the state House can be put to voters in a referendum.
Should that occur in an expeditious manner, the question could be put to Pennsylvania voters as soon as this November’s General Election, when lawmakers are hoping high turnout due to the mid-term election will give voters a say in how their Legislature looks.
Understanding the importance of that timeline, however, Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery) introduced an amendment to the bill that would – on the heels of Monday’s state Supreme Court order invalidating Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional map as unconstitutional – provide for redistricting reform that would take the process out of the hands of the Legislature and place it in the hands of a citizens commission.
The amendment was said to be identical to House Bill 722, a proposed constitutional amendment referred to the House State Government last May that, since it was introduced, has 86 co-sponsors in addition to prime sponsor Rep. Steve Samuelson (D-Northampton).
During Tuesday’s consideration of House Bill 153, Daley said any progress that could result in the reduction of the size of the Legislature is hollow reform absent additional measures that would change how the new, larger districts are drawn.
“Reducing the size of the Legislature without additional government reforms, we believe, is not the government reform we really need,” she said. “We need to have the independent commission…the goal of that is to ensure that future legislative districts are drawn in the most impartial way possible, providing transparency in the process.”
Republicans uniformly opposed the amendment, but their arguments for doing so went along three different lines.
The first, offered by committee Majority Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) was that the amendment was not germane to the underlying topic of reducing the size of the General Assembly.
“It’s changing a different section of the Constitution, proposing to amend a different section than the section this underlying bill Rep. Daley is trying to amend actually addresses,” he said. “We have two different issues here: one is the number of districts; the other is how we go about designing those districts.”
Minority Chairman Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), on the other hand, noted the issue has been made germane by the state Supreme Court’s decision that called into question the process by which some legislative districts are drawn.
“This would be a tremendous shift to the power of the legislative leaders,” he said of shrinking the Legislature without providing redistricting process reforms. “I can understand the need to make a more workable-sized House, but if it’s not coupled with real reform, without a look at how you do the reduction, if it’s just done by the current process that many of us believe is so flawed and failed – if you don’t do the two things side-by-side, I fear the ability for political mischief-making increases exponentially.”
The second argument offered by Republicans in opposition to the Daley amendment is that amending House Bill 153 at this stage would restart the constitutional amendment process and potentially cripple the ability to have the new districts in place following the next census.
Democrats said, however, that questions of timing should not override the importance of critical reform.
“When I look at House Bill 153 without this amendment, it looks to me and sounds to me like we are going to have exactly the same process…and we’re going to have the results that people complain about: that there’s gerrymandering because this bill does not say how it will get done and it does not change how it will get done,” said Daley.
Finally, Republican lawmakers argued that the citizens commission would not be nonpartisan due to the fact that some members would be chosen based upon party affiliation.
“Eight of the 11 members are chosen based on their partisanship, based upon the party that they are in, so this is not a nonpartisan situation that would be created with this,” Metcalfe said.
That did not stop Democrats from arguing that the commission would at least ensure some additional element of fairness in a process currently wracked by political partisanship.
“I find it difficult to move forward with this particular plan of reducing the Legislature until we know what that process is going to be in a fair way,” said Rep. Steve McCarter (D-Montgomery). “The courts have obviously weighed in; now it’s our time to weigh in by giving fairness back to this system.”
Ultimately, Republicans prevailed, defeating the amendment along a strict party-line vote.
The underlying bill also passed, with Rep. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson) being the lone Republican to vote against the measure.
While Dush was not recognized to speak during Tuesday’s meeting, he has, in the past, been vocal about his opposition to legislation reducing the size of the Legislature due to the difficulty of rural House members covering multi-county districts.
Democrats agreed with Dush, noting that the current size of the Legislature provides an intimacy that allows members the ability to react to local problems swiftly and work to protect vulnerable populations.
“Not only will this impact rural voices…how will this impact the voices of women and people of color, the people on the margins, and communities that struggle when we reduce the size of the Legislature?” asked Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia). “We don’t need to answer these questions now, but I do think they are worthy questions to explore as we think about this.”
The prime sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill), said that passing the legislation this session will give legislators’ bosses – the people of Pennsylvania – a say in whether to reduce the size of the House.
“Our bosses, legislators’ bosses, will be the ones making the final decision,” he said. “That, I believe, is the main point in this thing. The people will be able to make the decision, the voters of Pennsylvania.”
The committee also advanced House Bill 253, legislation sponsored by Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) that would reduce the size of the Senate from the current complement of 50 to 37 senators.
The legislation passed the House last session but was not taken up by the Senate.
Reducing the size of the House of Representatives is likely to get fast-tracked through the House in the remaining early session days of 2018.
Tuesday, House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) said that he has supported such measures in the past and will likely schedule a vote on the bill in the coming weeks.
“Since 2012, I have voted to shrink the size of the Legislature and continue our work to right-size Pennsylvania’s government as folks tell us they want,” Rep. Reed said. “Using today’s communications tools, we can ensure everyone across the state has a strong voice in the House.”
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government