A bipartisan effort to trim state government gained some traction this year, but it’s a slow road ahead that could be blocked by some sizable obstacles.
“If you’re going to amend our constitution, it should be difficult,” state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, said, explaining that decisions to alter such an important document as Pennsylvania’s Constitution should be fully vetted.
A group of state legislators are pushing to get two bills in front of the governor for his approval by August — one bill to slim the state Senate from 50 to 45 and another to reduce the state House from 203 to 153.
Provisions are made in the state constitution defining the number of legislative and senatorial districts, and it will take an amendment to cut them down. It will be no simple task.
Mullery co-sponsored House Bill 1234, which slogged its way through the state House last year and now is before the state Senate for approval. Senators are considering their own version, Senate Bill 324, which is still before the state government committee.
Legislators must put the bills before the governor, he has to sign them and then they must do it all over again with the same exact bills during the next general assembly. After that, the bills must go before voters by way of referendum.
It gets complicated when legislators cycle through Harrisburg, and those who herald an amendment might not stay in office long enough to see it through to the end.
Such is the case for Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Punxatawney, the House bill’s prime sponsor who is not seeking re-election this year when the bills could be making their second round through the system.
Pennsylvania has the second highest-paid legislators in the country, with annual salaries starting at $84,000, with per diems at $157 for each day the legislator is in session, according to the latest numbers from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Only California pays its legislators more with $95,200 annual salaries and a $141 per diem rate.
The bills’ advocates say cost savings are among top priorities. Mullery also said it’s easier to reach a consensus on a vote with fewer legislators.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, co-sponsored the Senate bill. He was leery about there being enough momentum to carry the amendment to fruition, but the bills are a step in the right direction, he said.
“There has not been great legislative support, so I’m not too optimistic,” Yudichak said. “But I am encouraged.”
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, is behind the bill, too.
“The advantages of saving money, increasing legislative efficiency, and responding to public demands for reform far outweigh any concerns about minor increases in distance and population per district,” Baker said in a prepared statement.
Baker qualified her reasoning by saying, “states larger than ours in population or area get by with far fewer legislators.”
And she’d be right.
With 253 lawmakers, Pennsylvania soars over the average 150 total legislators throughout the country. And some states, including Delaware, Nevada, Oregon and Arizona, have fewer than 100.
On the other hand, New Hampshire has 400 state representatives and 24 senators; however, those legislators are paid $200 for a two-year term with no per diems.
Calls for convention
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, is drumming up support among his colleagues for the Senate bill. He said there’s no way the constituency will get a chance to weight in on the bill before the 2015 general election. Even if it is passed as written, the law would not go into effect until the state’s next redistricting scheduled for 2020.
Still, the bills must be signed by the governor before the end of this year’s general assembly or the process must start from scratch in the next. This happened when Smith’s bill did not gain enough support during the last session.
“This idea’s been around for quite some time,” Smucker said. “If we do not act on the good work that has been done by August, we would have to start all over again next session.”
Complications such as these are why Yudichak argues a constitutional convention, the likes of which hasn’t happened since 1968, is the only way to tackle the general assembly size.
The issue of legislature size is one of many that need to be addressed during a convention, Yudichak said. He would like to see district lines drawn by geographic and demographic features, not “red” or “blue” political alignment, which now creates a partisan advantage as it stands now, he said.
“Every few years, there’s another reason to advance this momentum (toward a convention),” Yudichak said.
The final draft of the House bill passed 148-50 with state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, the area’s only legislator to vote “no.”
He pointed to the history behind the current size, and said constituents could see services decline with larger districts. The more representatives and senators, the closer they can be to the people, Pashinski said.
The the vast number of lawmakers also prevents corruption, Pashinski said. The current size was set during the 1874 constitutional convention at a time of great economic growth when private interests often swayed lawmakers with cash.
“They decided the larger the legislature, the less chance of buying off the legislators,” Pashinski said.
A convention could give the general assembly a chance to scrutinize the entire state constitution and methodically decide if too many districts weigh down the Commonwealth, Pashinski said.
“There’s no doubt that every x number of years, the constitution should be revisited,” Pashinski said. “(But) sometimes to change just for the sake of change isn’t always a good thing,” he said.