Bethlehem Press

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Making the state Legislature smaller is no easy task

Thursday, December 27, 2018 by The Press in Opinion

“I got it close, but I couldn’t get it over the goal line.”

That’s the way state Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill-Carbon, described his effort to shepherd a bill through the General Assembly to reduce the size of the House of Representatives from 203 to 151 members.

“We were one procedural vote away from getting this on the ballot, the closest we have ever come,” he said.

The bill, which was for all intents and purposes dead as a doornail in October after some fancy political chicanery, officially succumbed on Dec. 1, when the legislative session ended. As a result, everything resets, and we go back to square one.

In an exclusive interview with me, Knowles said he doesn’t know whether he has the “fire in the belly” to reintroduce the bill in the new session. He said he will make a decision between now and the middle of January to determine whether he will lead the effort in the new session or whether he will encourage someone else to take up the charge.

Knowles has been in the forefront of this six-year effort to reduce the size of the state House of Representatives from its current 203 members to 151. The original bill left the 50-member state Senate intact.

But two months ago, when three Republicans joined 14 Democrats on the House Rules Committee to amend Knowles’ original bill to include a reduction in the number of senators from 50 to 38, its death knell rang.

This was the poison pill that doomed the legislation, because there was little support in the Senate for a reduction in its number, although the Senate was willing to go along with the House reduction.

Knowles’ bill would have called for a constitutional amendment to let voters decide. Approving such an amendment is difficult, because it requires the House and Senate to pass identical bills in consecutive legislative sessions, after which the legislation must be approved by the voters. Both houses did pass Knowles’ bill once, but not twice.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was,” Knowles said. He said originally there appeared to be a lot of enthusiasm for the bill, “but it turned out to be false enthusiasm,” Knowles added.

Knowles described it this way: He feels that some legislators signed on as co-sponsors to make them look good to the public, but all along they expected that the bill would go nowhere. When the bill began to get traction, it took some of them by surprise and they became concerned that maybe they would wind up losing their jobs.

“They played games and blew up the bill,” Knowles said, laying the blame squarely at the feet of House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, who was recently re-elected to that position.

Knowles wants to make sure that the true mission of this bill is not overlooked amid all of the political noise and shenanigans that have torpedoed it. “The whole purpose of this bill is to give voters a chance to make a decision on how big a Legislature they want,” he said.

There is no question in my mind that if a bill on legislature reduction gets on the ballot, it will be approved overwhelmingly. Pennsylvania has the second-largest Legislature in the nation, next only to New Hampshire, which pays its part-time representatives a pittance. Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly are making at least nearly $89,000 as of Dec. 1, second-highest paid in the nation next to California.

While he is frustrated by the political games being played, Knowles said that he has not taken it personally. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me,” he said.

He realizes that it would take courage to pass a bill such as this because it could essentially mean the end of the road for 52 of his colleagues.

“It scares the bejesus out of them,” he said.

Knowles said he admires the framers of the state Constitution, who made it “really hard” to change the charter. When you think that more than 3,000 bills get introduced each session, but only a few pass, you can just imagine how tough it is to get a constitutional amendment passed, he explained.

Reducing the number of House members would save taxpayers an estimated $15 million annually, according to a House study.

Of course, there is some opposition within the House itself. Aside from the practical matter of eliminating their own jobs, some House members are concerned that newer, enlarged districts would be too unwieldy and would not allow them to be as in touch with their constituents. Under the plan, the average population of a House district would be about 85,000, compared to the present 63,000.

With today’s wondrous technological advances in communication, legislators have all sorts of contact alternatives with constituents compared to the “old days.”

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com