April 16, 2012: Bill for Smaller Legislature Advances
A proposal to amend PA's Constitution and reduce the size of the legislature has passed the House and is headed for the Senate.
House Bill 153, whose prime sponsor is House Speaker Sam Smith (Jefferson), originally proposed only to reduce the number of representatives from the current 203 to 153 (hence HB 153). During debate in the House, however, an amendment was added also to reduce the number of senators from 50 to 38.
This would result in each chamber being cut by about 25 percent, which is in keeping with the results of DR's 2012 Public Integrity Poll. 62% of PA voters favor (30% oppose) amending the Constitution to reduce the size of the legislature. 62% also favor (34% oppose) reducing each chamber by the same percentage.
The process for getting this accomplished is long and subject to mischief. Next the Senate has to pass HB 153. It can pass it as it arrives, or it can amend it. If amended, the bill has to go back to the House for concurrence.
Assuming that happens, that only gets us to halftime. The identical language must go through the same procedure in the next two-year legislative session (2013-14). Then it goes on the ballot for voters to accept or reject at a referendum in either 2013 or 2014, depending on when lawmakers decide to pass it for the second time. If there are any changes to HB 153 after its first passage, the process has to start over again, pushing any referendum back into the 2015-16 legislative session.
The changes wouldn't go into effect until after the 2020 census. This creates the temptation for lawmakers to keep kicking the can down the road, as they have done with many issues such as taxing Marcellus Shale extraction, property tax reform, making public pensions solvent, re-districting reform, full funding for public schools, etc.
The alternative, which 68% of PA voters support (28% oppose), is a Constitution convention. If lawmakers authorized the referendum for a convention this fall, a convention could occur in 2013 in time for any recommendations (on this or other subjects) to be on the ballot that November for voters to accept or reject.
As reform efforts go, this is sleight of hand.
When you look at all of the improvements citizens want legislators to make, this one ranks fairly low on the list. While 62% of PA voters want to cut the size of the legislature:
- 68% want a Constitution convention where citizens, not lawmakers, can make this kind of decision.
- 72% want to change our system for drawing legislative districts.
- 74% want to limit the size of campaign contributions.
- 87% want public officials to resign their current office when they decide to run for a different one, want the right of initiative, and want the right of referendum.
- 88% want the right to recall public officials who are misbehaving in office.
- 93% want to prohibit public officials from taking anything of value from those who try to influence their decisions.
- 95% want to have the same requirements for anyone to get on the ballot, regardless of political affiliation.
Some of these campaign contribution limits, a gift ban, and ballot access can be accomplished by a simple statute. They could happen this year, but no one thinks they will. After all, why would lawmakers do something that 74-95% of the voters want them to do in an election year when half of the legislative districts will have no competition in November?
It's not surprising that lawmakers don't want citizens to be able to debate and control the decision of how many lawmakers to have. The lawmakers' concern is for themselves, not for citizens.
Smith's main stated reason for doing this is managerial. A smaller number of lawmakers makes it easier for legislative leaders to control operations by consolidating power in fewer and fewer hands.
With the trend toward more rigid partisanship, this may not be a good thing. Taken to the extreme, the most efficient system would be a legislature consisting of maybe half a dozen lawmakers. In fact, lawmakers use such a system to pass the state budget every year when legislative leaders negotiate the deal in secret while representatives and senators are glorified bystanders.
How's that working for us?