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Pennsylvania Senate panel approves new congressional map

| Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

HARRISBURG — A congressional redistricting bill that merges two Western Pennsylvania districts narrowly won approval today from a Senate committee, setting up a full vote in the upper chamber later this afternoon or this evening.

The state House then would vote on it next week.

The proposal, first unveiled yesterday afternoon, combines much of the 4th District held by Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless and the 12th District of Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown, both Democrats.

Common Cause of Pennsylvania issued a statement this afternoon blasting the plan as "breathtakingly brazen in its defiance of the interests of Pennsylvania's voters." The group's lobbyist Barry Kauffman said the plan "is a clear-cut case of politicians picking their voters in order to prevent voters from having a meaningful opportunity to pick their elected officials." Pennsylvania lost one congressional district, going from 19 to 18, because of population shifts from 2000 to 2010. Pennsylvania grew at a lower rate than other states and the Western part of the state generally lost population.

The Senate State Government Committee approved the bill 6-5 on the "proxy" vote in the affirmative by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. Scarnati wasn't there but committee chairman Charles McIlheny, R-Bucks County, cast his vote for him, which is allowed under Senate rules.

The vote was along party lines except for Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, who said there are constitutional problems with the bill and that he believes it was drawn to dilute the Democrats' approximate 1 million voter registration edge in the state. It's a prime exhibit on the need for redistricting reform, he said.

"All you have to do is look at it (the map,)" Folmer said.

The 7th congressional district in Southeast Pennsylvania looks like "a three-headed dog," said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County.

If lawmakers took their oaths of office seriously, to follow the Constitution, this map would never have been produced, Folmer said.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, who voted for it, said the map stretches districts so far that Franklin County in Southcentral Pennsylvania is in a district with Greene County voters in the Southwest corner of the state.

Critics also said there was not significant time for public review.

McIlheny defended the process as transparent. House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, yesterday pointed to public hearings that had been held across the state.

"That is a fiction," said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, who attended the Senate hearing. "The public hearings were a half a year before the plan was

Common Cause noted that the Legislature has had the census data, on which the redistricting plan is based, since the beginning of April, but did not release its proposed plan until Tuesday.

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