Plan to shrink Pa. House advances
A local legislator’s proposal to give voters a chance to reduce the number of state representatives is moving forward in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania House state government committee recently voted in favor of HB 153 – which was introduced by state Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill.
The approval came after a hearing at which Democrats tried unsuccessfully to add an amendment that would appoint an independent commission to set the state’s legislative districts.
Knowles said during the hearing that the key to his proposal is that the decision rests with the citizens of Pennsylvania, who he referred to as “the legislators’ bosses.
“Our bosses, the legislators’ bosses, will be the ones making that decision,” Knowles said. “When it goes on the ballot in the form of a referendum, your bosses will decide whether they want to have 151 members of the House of Representatives, or 203. So that is the main point in this thing, that the people will get to make that decision, the voters of Pennsylvania.”
The bill now moves to the full house for a vote, but voters will make the final decision in a statewide referendum.
If the house and senate approve the bill in time, voters could have a chance to vote on the referendum this November.
Knowles’ proposal is to reduce the number of state representatives to 151 from 203.
The vote was 14-10, with the Republican majority supporting the bill and the Democratic minority opposing it.
Knowles’ proposed amendment calls for the reduction to take place in 2022, when legislative districts will be redrawn using data from the 2020 census.
In order to amend the constitution, the house must pass the exact same bill during two different legislative sessions. HB 153 was passed overwhelmingly by both the house and the senate in the 2015-16 session. The house voted 139-56 and the senate voted 43-6.
To hold a referendum, the house and senate must pass the exact same legislation in the 2017-18 session.
If passed by both houses, the proposed amendment would have to be advertised in two newspapers in each county of the commonwealth at least 90 days before the election.
Knowles said he hopes the bill will be on the ballot for voters this fall.
The state government committee also advanced a similar bill that would give voters the chance to reduce the size of the senate to 38 seats from 50. But unlike Knowles’ bill, it needs to be passed again in the 2019-20 session.
The majority of the hearing dealt with an amendment to the bill proposed by Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery. Daley’s amendment would have created an independent commission to redraw the legislative districts if the reduction in the house size was passed.
Legislators are currently in charge of creating new maps. The process takes place every 10 years, following the census.
Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, who said he supports reducing the size of the house, supported the amendment because he said the majority party at the time would wield an unfair power over the opposition.
“The potential for mischief-making becomes quite problematic,” he said.
Knowles said he opposed the amendment because it would basically put the reduction process back to square one, but said he believes the reapportionment of house seats will come up in Harrisburg again.
“They are two completely different issues. And I believe that by holding this legislation hostage, I believe you are making a big mistake. I believe this is getting the foot in the door,” Knowles said.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, who also served in the house, spoke with The Press Monday and said she is in favor of the measure. She said, “With 25 percent less members in the house, you’re going to get less congested legislating. I learned very quickly when I moved from the house to the senate that legislative sessions were less chaotic, more efficiently, we got to know each other better, Democrats and Republicans, because we could negotiate better in smaller numbers.”
She said making proposals to leaders and committee chairs are much easier with fewer people demanding time.
Additionally, Boscola said the cuts would save the state an estimated $10 million to $15 million a year.
Boscola also said she feels there would be no danger of underrepresentation, as technology makes it very easy to keep constituents informed and responsive. The proposal will increase each representative’s district population from about 62,000 to about 84,000, which may be fairly meaningless when everyone gets the same message instantly on their computers or phones. “We’re in a totally different world today, so downsizing is something I’m wholeheartedly in favor of.”