Pa. House votes to trim Legislature, but bill's fate is unclear

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A proposal to cut about a quarter of state lawmakers from the Pennsylvania General Assembly moved ahead with a favorable House vote Tuesday, but it's still not certain that the constitutional amendment will make it onto the November ballot.

The House voted 109-80 on Tuesday for a bill that would cut the House from 203 to 151 members and the Senate from 50 to 38. It was not a party-line vote, but Republicans were generally in favor and Democrats generally opposed.

The discussion about the future of their institution, and perhaps their own fate, generated an impassioned debate that pitted supporters touting greater efficiency and cost savings against opponents warning it could dilute the voice of constituents, particularly in rural areas.

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, told colleagues who supported the measure to "resign tomorrow" if they truly believe the Legislature would be better off with fewer members.

Supporters said there will be savings from the lawmakers' own salaries and benefits.

"Most other states are getting by with much smaller houses than we have," said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford. "In California, they have an 80-member state House."

The bill is an amendment to the state constitution, so it needs to pass with identical language in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions. The version that passed during the last session reduced the House alone. The bill approved by the House on Tuesday pertains to both chambers.

That means the only way voters will see the referendum on the ballot in November is for the Senate to strip out the reduction in senators, and then have the House pass it again to include only the cut in state representatives.

A spokeswoman for the Republican majority in the Senate said her caucus members will have to discuss the bill before deciding how to respond.

Looming over the debate is redistricting that will be done after the 2020 census.

For legislative districts, it's a process performed by four people, the majority and minority leaders of both chambers or their designees, and a fifth member. If the four leaders can't agree on the fifth member, he or she is chosen by the state Supreme Court, currently with a 5-2 Democratic majority.

Pennsylvania's 253-person Legislature is the nation's second-largest, after New Hampshire's 424 members. If it is reduced to 189 members by cutting about a quarter from each chamber, it will become the country's seventh-largest. It has a staff of about 3,000 people and an annual cost of some $325 million. A cut from 203 to 151 House members would increase district population from 62,000 to 84,000.

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, an opponent of the proposal, said he worries the leaders will want to first eliminate districts represented by members who are "independent, anybody who's voted against the party line, anybody who's spoken up or spoken out."

"We would have political payback like the state has never seen," Samuelson said.