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Time running out in effort to cut number of state lawmakers

September 30, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A proposal that’s kicked around the Capitol for years to shrink the number of state lawmakers in Pennsylvania may not be dead, but it’s at least on life support.

The latest blow came during a committee meeting last week, when Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, was able to get the bill amended — yet again — to restore a provision that would also cut the size of the Senate.

The Senate-House divide on the issue has plagued efforts to amend the constitution to cut the House from 203 to 151 and the Senate from 50 to 38.

Constitutional amendments have to pass both chambers of the Legislature in two consecutive two-year sessions. About a month remains for lawmakers to get it over the finish line for the second round of approval before the 2017-18 session ends.

If it is approved, the referendum could go on the statewide ballot next spring. The conventional wisdom in Harrisburg is that it will pass overwhelmingly if voters get the chance to weigh in.

It appears that the state Senate wants nothing to do with reducing its members, and opponents in the House have been using that to their tactical advantage. The version that passed both chambers in the 2015-16 session would cut the House only, so adding the Senate back in effectively would mean a public vote can’t happen until 2021 at the earliest.

In 2011, then-Speaker Sam Smith, a Jefferson County Republican, introduced a bill that would trim down the House. Smith could not make it happen, but his idea lives on.

While some supporters may see it as a way to cut costs for what is the country’s largest full-time Legislature — and second-largest overall, after New Hampshire — that was not the goal Smith had in mind.

He saw it as a way to make the House easier to manage, easier to reach members on short notice and easier to get their feedback on legislative matters.

“We would be a more efficient body if the House of Representatives was smaller,” Smith said at the time.

Smith retired at the end of 2014, and the proposal is now pushed by state Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill.

Knowles said he was “extremely disappointed” that three Republicans joined all Democrats in the Rules Committee last week in voting to add back in a reduction in the Senate, a poison pill that would effectively kill the measure.

The legislative option left for him and other supporters would require a two-thirds vote of all representatives — not impossible but very much a longshot.

“There are six people on Rules that voted for this back in the last session,” Knowles said. “And now, in Rules, they pull shenanigans to take it off the tracks. Somebody who’s been against it from the beginning, and who’s consistent, I get that. But for those people who are making a game out of this, it’s extremely disappointing.”

A central argument against the amendment is that a smaller House would create districts with many more constituents, and in rural areas that could mean a vast district that includes parts of four or five counties.

“It takes representation farther away from the people we are meant to serve,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for Dermody and the Democratic caucus.

The House is back in session Monday, and a few other days next month, and its two-year session ends Nov. 30.

There could be a vote after the election, although Patton said there is an “unresolved question” about whether it may already be too late, given advertising requirements for constitutional amendments.

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