Pennsylvania’s legislators had an opportunity this week to give voters in November a simple choice – reduce the size of the state’s House of Representatives from 203 members to 151, or keep it as it is.
Instead, the House voted to amend the proposed constitutional amendment to also include a reduction in the size of the state Senate. As a result, the issue won’t appear on the ballot this year at all.
At issue is the somewhat convoluted procedure required to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, which is a bit more complex than simply passing a law. The proposal would need to pass the House and Senate during one two-year session, and then pass again in the following two-year term without alteration, before it could go to the voters.
The language the House was considering Feb. 5 had already been approved by both chambers during the 2015-16 legislative session. Passage of the exact same wording again in this session would’ve meant the amendment could go before the voters this fall
Instead, because it was amended, the only way it could get to voters is to go now to the Senate (where passage was described as unlikely), then be approved again during the 2019-20 session by both chambers without any further amendment. The earliest now that Pennsylvanians might see the topic on their ballot is the fall of 2020.
And that possibility, right now, is seen as very unlikely.
“In prior sessions, I believe I voted for a proposal like this at least three times,” Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, said. “And the first proposal did just this – it had both the House and the Senate contained in it, and it went to the Senate and was never picked up in subsequent sessions.”
In the 2015-16 session, Cutler said, the House sent two separate proposals to the Senate, one strictly for reducing the House, the other strictly for reducing the Senate.
“This one [to shrink the House] was returned to us and is now ready for final passage,” he said while arguing against the new amendment.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Cheswick, said that amending the proposal and missing this year’s ballot wasn’t a big concern because the reduction wouldn’t take effect until 2022 in either case.
“So we can send this back to the Senate, include the Senate,” he said. “There is no rush to judgment here. There’s no need for us to do this tonight because we can include the [Senate] and have it all done by 2022.”
But Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, pointed out that sending it to the Senate with the amendment not only delayed the process, but probably also would kill it.
“The Senate has not shown a willingness, thus far, to reduce the size of their own body,” he said. “That is why last session we decided to move forward with a bill to reduce the size of the House alone.”
Reed went on to remind his colleagues why a reduction was being considered at all.
“This bill, unamended … continues with our commitment to show the voters of Pennsylvania that we indeed are willing to lead by example and cut down the size of this body before we ask other families across the state and other folks who rely upon government to reduce their own expenditures and live on just a little bit less,” he said.
Reducing the number of elected representatives by 52 would eliminate $4.5 million in salary costs alone.
Reed also suggested that backers of the amendment might be well aware that passing the amendment was effectively a way to kill the process entirely, but it gave them an excuse to do so while still claiming that they supported it.
The amendment to reduce the Senate from 50 to 38 districts passed on a 114-81 vote.