March 31, 2011 | By | Posted in Legislature

Lawmakers, analysts weigh pros and cons of smaller legislature

Cost unlikely to be reduced, political clout could shift

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — After sweeping into majority control of the state House in November, Republican leaders promised to reduce the size of Pennsylvania’s state government.
It appears they may have been speaking literally.
Earlier this week, Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, officially unveiled his proposal to reduce the size of the state House from 203 members to 153 members. The proposal would require a constitutional amendment, and if approved would not make any changes until after the next national census in 2020 and the redistricting process, meaning the number of districts would not be reduced until 2022.
Each member of the state House now represents about 62,000 of the state’s 12.7 million people. If the number of districts were reduced to 153, each member would have 83,000 constituents. Smith said the proposal would make the chamber more efficient and would improve communication between leadership and rank-and-file members.
“The ability to build a consensus and find common ground is exacerbated when you’re dealing with 203 people,” said Smith. “There’s nothing magical about 203 members in the House.”
Since 1960, 34 states in the nation have adjusted the size of their legislatures at least once. Pennsylvania last did so in 1966, reducing the state House from 209 members to 203.
Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said research does not indicate any ideal size for a state legislative body.
“It’s very hard to separate out the dynamics that may be caused by size versus the dynamics that might be caused by individual member personalities,” Erickson said. “It’s hard to assess the effects because there are so many things which are happening within a Legislature at any point in time.”
A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that a smaller Legislature did not decrease the number of bills introduce or the competitiveness of legislative elections. However, the study indicated a smaller Legislature would give the leadership of the majority party slightly more authority, Erickson said.
In Pennsylvania, some lawmakers — even some who support the legislation — are concerned the restructuring of the state House will limit the political power of the state’s rural areas.
State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, said he is co-sponsoring the legislation because his constituents are in favor of it, despite his own concerns.
“I think there are a lot of other ways to reduce the cost of government,” Scavello said.
He recommended reducing the size of legislative staff or changing the leasing process for district offices.
State Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, a former speaker of the House, called the proposal “outrageous and shortsighted in the extreme.” He said reductions to legislative staff and other costs should be targeted first.
“Places like Greene County would never have another representative in Harrisburg,” said DeWeese. “They would have to share a district with someone from Fayette County or Washington County.”
Greene County is one of the least populated in the state, with about 40,000 residents. It is one of 17 counties in the state with a single representative in the House.
Even in more populated areas, the changes would have consequences.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said adding more constituents to his district would force him to rely more on fundraising to win re-election instead of meeting with residents.
Smith said he used to believe rural areas would lose out by cutting the size of the state House, but his feelings have changed after 24 years in the chamber. He also dismissed concerns about reducing the connection between a representative and constituents by increasing the size of districts.
“The public’s voice is more affected by the process of drawing the districts than by the number of seats,” Smith said.
Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College, agreed that the shape of legislative districts is more important than their size. However, he doubted whether the changes would bring about meaningful reform to state government.
“I’m not a firm believer that changing it changes what some people would like to see out of the Legislature, which is more economy and more efficiency and more reforms,” said Madonna. “I don’t think you change the culture by just eliminating 20 or 50 people.”
Smith said cutting the size of the state House was only one part of an overall plan to change the culture in Harrisburg. He said efficiency, not potential cost-savings, were the driving force behind the plan.
“I’m not selling it under the premise that it will save us money,” he said.
Erickson said there are conflicting studies regarding the connection between legislative size and cost. When Illinois reduced the size of its legislature in 1982, expected cost savings were never realized because larger districts meant more legislative staffers needed to be hired, she said.
Bill Patton, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said the proposal is being considered by the House Democratic leadership, but they have not committed to supporting it. Instead, Dermody is focusing on cost-cutting measures that will not take a decade to realize, such as combining printing services and reducing the size of staff, Patton said.
Erik Arneson, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Senate Republicans support efforts to reduce the size and cost of government, including a proposal from Sen. John Pippy, R-Allegheny, to cut the state House to 40 members and the state Senate to 161 members.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would be open to the idea of reducing the size of the state House, according to spokesperson Lisa Scullin. However, there is some concern about reducing the size of the state Senate, she said.
Each state senator represents about 250,000 constituents.
Any change would require a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by each chamber of the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions and then pass a statewide referendum.
Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising PA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said changes to the total members in the Legislature should not be determined by Smith or any other politician, but should come from the voters of the state.
“We ought not to be taking anyone’s number, except what comes out of a constitutional convention. That’s the only way it can happen,” said Potts, whose group is pressing for a new constitutional convention in Pennsylvania.
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