One hundred and ten cosponsors weren’t enough to get a nonpartisan redistricting bill onto the House floor intact.
Less than a day after Rep. Steve Samuelson (D-Northampton) announced a discharge resolution to kick his redistricting bill out of the House State Government Committee, Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) and 14 other House Republicans voted to completely rewrite HB 722 via amendment.
The committee’s 11 Democrats opposed the move.
Samuelson’s bill would originally have amended the state Constitution to create a nonpartisan citizen’s commission, modeled on California’s successful reforms, to draw congressional and state district lines with an eye on keeping communities together.
Instead of the majority and minority leaders in both chambers and an agreed-upon chairman, the new amendment would use a representative chosen by each caucus – not necessarily the majority or minority leader.
Then, each chamber would vote as a whole to select a representative for six total members.
Metcalfe said the plan would provide more accountability for the average voter than a citizen’s commission.
“There is no greater citizen’s commission than the General Assembly in this state,” he opined, adding that while the amendment was written in advance, “today offered a time to do it since Rep. Samuelson is kind of ready to try and force the process in a different direction.”
According to a copy of the amendment, it was filed April 6. Samuelson and Democratic members of the committee claim they weren’t aware of it or had seen it before this morning.
With 54 percent of the House membership behind the bill, Samuelson thought his bill deserved a vote as is, or at least a public hearing.
“It’s a horrible process,” Samuelson said before the meeting. “A sham process.”
Despite the last-minute scheduling of the voting meeting, members of Fair Districts PA, a redistricting advocacy group that hopes to take elected officials out of the business of drawing electoral maps, still filled the room.
Due to occupancy limits, some observers were forced to leave and mill about outside the committee room doors.
Following the meeting’s end, shouts of “Shame” and “Blue wave coming” were aimed at the committee members.
Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, minced no words after the meeting, saying the bill would only place more power in the hands of the majority party to control the lines on new maps.
“Rep. Daryl Metcalfe just spit in the face of the sponsors, colleagues, constituents and advocates who have supported an independent redistricting commission,” Kuniholm said.
Samuelson’s fellow Democrats also joined in attacking the legislative maneuvering, among them House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) and Gov. Tom Wolf.
“After the last few months, it should be clear that the solution to our broken redistricting system is not putting more power in the hands of partisan politicians,” Wolf said in a statement. “This is wrong, and it is an affront to our democracy.”
In addition to leaving redistricting in the hands of elected officials, the newly amended bill sets compactness and the integrity of counties or other communities of interest as the bars for drawing districts, and “drawn without regard to partisan balance or voter efficiency.”
Many challenges to gerrymandered maps have relied upon statistics such as the efficiency gap, which attempts to measure votes wasted in lopsided districts.
In case of a tie in the even-numbered redistricting committee, the members would present the two drafts they are required by law to create to the General Assembly for a straight up-or-down vote with no possibility of amendment.
Upon passage, the new maps could only be challenged in court within 30 days. Also, if a judicial draw is necessary because of missed deadlines, it is left to the Commonwealth Court, not the Supreme Court.
The changes were intentional, according to Metcalfe: He specifically pointed out after the meeting that the bill “left out the troublesome Supreme Court.”
“They need to be removed from the process and the Constitution needs to be made clear that they are not allowed to do what they have just done,” he said, referencing the January state Supreme Court ruling that threw out the Republicans’ 2011 congressional map as a partisan gerrymander.
The court then replaced the old map, after giving the legislature a two-week span to draw a new map, with one drawn by an expert.
While the amendment to HB 722 passed, a final vote to get the bill out of committee is yet to be scheduled. Metcalfe said he wanted to see what the Senate put forth before continuing.
Reached by phone, Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) said he was still waiting on his committee’s second public hearing on redistricting planned for April 24 before putting any legislation forward.
Folmer left the door open to a whole range of changes, even referencing Sen. Lisa Boscola’s companion to the now rewritten HB 722 as a baseline.
“We could use SB 22 and amend some things in it. I need this other hearing. When you are talking about amending the Constitution of Pennsylvania, it needs to be deliberative and a very thoughtful fashion,” Folmer said. “That’s why we are having the hearings.”
As for the House’s amendment, Folmer seemed surprised.
“It’s interesting they did that – they didn’t have any hearings on that,” he said.
Stephen Caruso is a staff writer for The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania's government