The struggle to rightsize the Pennsylvania Legislature
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
HARRISBURG — While Pennsylvania continues to have the largest “full-time” state legislature in the nation with 253 members, Ohio somehow manages with 132. West Virginia gets by with 134. Among larger states, California has only 120 members and Texas has 181. In Florida, it's 160.
“Full-time” is in quotes because rank-and-file lawmakers — with salaries of $83,802 — actually are in Harrisburg 70 or so days a year. “Full-time” is a joke.
There's an outside chance that the Pennsylvania General Assembly, most likely the House (with 203 members), might get a trim if pending legislation passes. Such measures, however, usually are doomed because of lawmakers' self-interests.
Sponsored for the second session by House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, the bill can't be dismissed as easily because of his position. Last session, the House took Smith's bill to reduce the House to 153 and gave it what turned out to be the kiss of death with an amendment to drop the Senate from 50 to 38 members.
Anticipating similar moves this year, Smith introduced two separate reduction bills for the House and Senate. Both bills were approved last week by the State Government Committee.
The idea of sponsoring separate bills is based on the hope that the Senate could at least move the House bill to the governor's desk.
The notion of cost savings is an ongoing debate. Some believe it's a slam-dunk that a smaller Legislature will mean fewer salaries and per diems, which of course it will. Others suspect that the size of the legislative staff, already one of the largest in the nation, will grow with larger districts and overshadow other savings. The size of House districts would increase from about 62,000 constituents to 83,000.
Taxpayers could save at least $8 million in salaries, benefits, travel and lodging for lawmakers by reducing the size of Pennsylvania's Legislature, the Trib found in a study this year. But that does not factor in the unknown increases that might come with a larger staff.
Smith doesn't sell it on cost. He sees it as a way to have a “more efficient” Legislature.
What's clear is that House members would not be the familiar figures they now are in small communities. That also would increase the cost of campaigns.
If Smith's latest bill gets out of the House (a very likely proposition), don't hold your breath. It must clear the Senate, then go through the same process again next session, starting in 2015, because it is a constitutional amendment. Amending the Constitution requires passage of a bill in two consecutive sessions. Then voter approval would be required in a statewide election. Given the popularity of this type of proposal, there seems to be little doubt voters would adopt it.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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