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Pennsylvania lawmakers' career paths vary

| Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, 7:00 p.m.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, attaches a piece of equipment onto his tractor at his Hempfield farm on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. Nelson is a part-time farmer and a safety consultant who was elected in March during a special election.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, attaches a piece of equipment onto his tractor at his Hempfield farm on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. Nelson is a part-time farmer and a safety consultant who was elected in March during a special election.

Fifty years ago, voters sent 60 lawyers and 10 farmers to Harrisburg among those tasked with crafting the laws that would govern them.

Today the number of lawyers is 27 while only two operate farms, according to a Tribune-Review survey of all 253 state House and Senate members.

Like states across the nation, Pennsylvania's legislature has fewer lawyers and farmers and more representatives from other professions, such as business, consulting and nonprofit work.

The percentage of lawyers in statehouses nationally dropped from 22.3 percent in 1976 to 14.4 percent last year, according to Stateline, a division of Pew Research and Analysis. Farmers dropped from 9.7 to 4.6 percent over the same period, statistics show.

“We all have our different perspectives, and we learn from each other — hopefully — and we respect each other's background and what each of us brings to the table,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, an attorney who previously worked in the Office of Auditor General. “I think the mix is healthy in order to hopefully be dealing with the right issues and getting to the right answers.”

Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, said his position as funeral director of Readshaw Funeral Home has taught him a lot about responding to constituents.

“(The job) made us good listeners, good caregivers, and it gave us a perspective on dealing with problems,” particularly the opioid overdose crisis, Readshaw said.

“I sat down with these families who suffered a death because of overdoses,” he said. “I think I have a different perspective and a different motivation to attempt to end this thing, whether heroin addiction or whatever it is.”

A diverse legislature is crucial for being representative of the people it governs, said Jack Treadway, a retired political science professor from Kutztown University.

“One of the criticisms of government is always that it's not responsive. It's always responsive; it's just a question of to whom,” Treadway said. “The best lobbyist that you can have for whatever your group is is representation in the Legislature.”

Decline of attorneys, rise of trained staffers

Attorneys were more prevalent in the past because Pennsylvania had a part-time Legislature, observers said. A law firm's flexibility made it one of the more accommodating professions for trips to Harrisburg.

The body became full time in 1967.

“It used to be much easier to maintain a (law) practice and be a legislator,” said Fredrick Cabell, director of legislative affairs for the Pennsylvania Bar Association. “The duty of legislators and lawyers has become more burdensome.”

Cabell said no one wants all lawmakers to be lawyers, but it's important to keep a healthy number of them because they understand issues that “might seem less than compelling to most folks.”

They're also trained to be analytical thinkers, a crucial skill in evaluating proposals, said Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Ellwood City, who graduated from law school just before taking office.

“Having that background and training, I do understand common law, constitutional law and other aspects of how laws are interpreted,” Gibbons said. “I think it gives me a better understanding of how we can expect the courts to view laws we're passing.”

As being a legislator became a full-time job, the pay increased — it's currently $85,339 for rank-and-file members — which allowed people from diverse backgrounds to afford a job in public service.

“Some argue there are problems with a full-time legislature,” said Erik Arneson, executive director of the Office of Open Records and a former Senate staffer. “To my mind, one of the clear benefits is it's a job that now can be done by people from any walk of life.”

Current state House members include those who list their professions as homemaker, longshoreman, engineer and roadmaster. The Senate has a social worker, a professor and a funeral director.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, is a safety consultant and a part-time farmer who on busy workdays sometimes straps on a headlamp to feed his pigs and do other farm chores after dark. He previously owned small businesses.

“I think it's extremely helpful to have actual employers and business people in the Capitol explaining the pain of ... quarterly taxes,” Nelson said. “As a representative, it really makes me very aware of the consequences of legislation for those small business owners, and that's the majority of employers in Pennsylvania.”

Rep. Kristin Hill, R-York County, who holds a master's degree in public policy, said her time as a homemaker informed her approach to lawmaking.

“Being a stay-at-home mom, we used to joke that my husband was on offense earning the money and I was on the defense protecting the money,” she said. “I still feel like that's my role — trying to protect tax dollars.”

To accommodate the shift away from lawyer legislators, lawmakers' staffers became more professional and focused on issues, said Vincent DeLiberato, director of the Legislative Reference Bureau. His office drafts and reviews all bills before they are introduced as legislation.

“Many of (the staffers) are lawyers, many are political science majors or public policy specialists,” DeLiberato said. The bureau's work “is really now the formatting of the draft and trying to get that into the proper legislative language.”

Changing identity

No matter a lawmaker's college major or previous career, an increasing number identify themselves only as legislators once they take office, the Trib's survey found.

For example, only 27 lawmakers include attorney in their occupation, although 51 have law degrees. Similarly, two lawmakers listed their occupation as farming, but at least two others — Nelson and Sen. Elder Vogel, a Beaver County Republican — own and operate farms.

The share of lawmakers across the country who call elected office their main profession rose from 2.7 percent in 1976 to 11.5 percent. That figure peaked in 2007 at 16 percent, Stateline found.

Pennsylvania and New York have the highest share who say lawmaking is their main profession, at 48 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

For Nelson, he said it feels disingenuous to call himself a farmer when he works his 72 acres part time. That's a big difference from his neighbors in an area outside Youngwood, he said.

“It's almost rude for me to say I'm a farmer when (my neighbor) is really a farmer,” Nelson said. “He stakes his livelihood on soybeans and corn, and I don't.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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