Another bill to cut Pennsylvania's General Assembly being offered
HARRISBURG — Lawmakers are so reluctant to trim the size of Pennsylvania's General Assembly that only “a massive taxpayer revolt” might force action, experts and citizens say.
“It is called job protection,” said W. Wesley McDonald, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College.
For decades, lawmakers have stalled or ignored legislation to reduce the number of legislative districts by amending the state constitution because it would force some politicians into “early retirement,” McDonald said.
Serving in a year-round legislature of 253 members — with $83,802 base salary, perks and pensions — is a career for many, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University. Cutting the number of districts would pit incumbents against each other.
“I just don't see this happening,” Leckrone said.
Yet House Speaker Sam Smith last week proposed bills to reduce House members from 203 to 153 and senators from 50 to 38. Pennsylvania's legislature ranks second in size only to New Hampshire's citizen legislature, in which 424 people serve part-time for $100 a year.
Smith, R-Punxsutawney, last year won approval of a bill to cut House districts. But colleagues added reductions for the Senate, and the bill died there. This time, he told colleagues in a memo, he'll separate the proposals: “It is my sincere hope separate legislative initiatives will provide the greater opportunity for consideration by the Senate.”
Democratic Rep. Tom Caltagirone of Reading is among the lawmakers who introduced similar bills over the decades. With the House speaker behind a bill, “we'll get it out of committee, onto the floor and out of the House,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, is co-sponsoring a bill to shrink the legislature and looks forward to working with Smith, said spokesman Erik Arneson. The bill by Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver County, would cut the body by 40 percent, to 151 House and Senate seats.
Since the 1980s, lawmakers have proposed a smaller legislature. As a constitutional amendment, that requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and then by voter referendum.
They've failed so often, despite public support, that it might take “a massive taxpayer revolt” beyond even the voter anger in 2005 over lawmakers' “midnight pay raise,” said Perry Bergman, 73, a retired chemical engineer from Mt. Lebanon. Legislators that year gave themselves and other state officials a pay hike, later repealed for everyone but judges.
A poll by Terry Madonna Opinion Research, conducted for Democracy Rising PA last year, found 62 percent of Pennsylvania voters favored reducing the legislature.
Vogel said his bill would save taxpayers more than $115 million. The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg-based policy group, contends minimal savings would result unless lawmakers substantially reduce staff. The General Assembly's staff exceeded 2,600 people in 2011.
The flip side of reducing the legislature's size is that districts expand, making constituents feel their votes are diluted — especially if they are placed in a district with a majority of voters from the opposite party, McDonald said.
Bergman suggests offering legislators buyouts similar to those in the private sector, giving someone with a few years in office a pension equivalent to 30 years of service, for example. Private money could pay for buyouts that would last until new districts are drawn, he said.
“Hey, it's all about greed and power. Let's cater to their greed,” Bergman said.
Marian Szmyd of Jeannette believes the unwieldy size of the legislature contributes to gridlock.
“It's constant stalemate because of lobbyist money and unions. We residents who pay attention are really sick of it. Nothing gets done. Too many reps (representatives) with too many opinions and owed favors,” said Szmyd, 76, a former federal employee.
“They push for passage of bills in June and November. So what do they do the rest of the time?”
Requiring committees to move all bills forward if they aren't considered during a set time period would help break gridlock, she said. Figures show about 5 percent of bills introduced become law.
“The larger the legislature, the harder it is to build a majority because the interests and needs of more members need to be taken into account,” Leckrone said. Larger legislatures “tend to spend more money on appropriations because coalition-building requires incorporating more pet projects of legislators.”
Though other states have them, a part-time legislature or a unicameral legislature like Nebraska's, with one chamber, would require Pennsylvania lawmakers to give up income, benefits and perhaps their jobs.
“The safer political option for them,” McDonald said, “is the status quo.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.