HARRISBURG — A move to let voters decide whether to cut about a quarter of the 203 districts in the Pennsylvania House passed a key hurdle Tuesday, raising the prospect it could go before the electorate for final approval this year.
The 14-10 vote by the House State Government Committee, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed, clears the way for a vote by the full House in the coming months.
If the Senate also approves the proposed constitutional amendment by early summer, a referendum will go on the ballot in November.
A parallel bill, to reduce the Senate from 50 to 37 members, also passed the committee but can’t be put to a statewide referendum before 2019.
The idea of reducing the House was championed by former Republican Speaker Sam Smith, who touted it as a way to make doing business more efficient. Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country, with a massive staff and budget to match.
On Tuesday, Republicans on the State Government Committee defeated a Democratic proposal to establish a commission to redraw district lines every 10 years.
Rep. Matt Bradford of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat, warned that it would concentrate power in the hands of a few leaders if they have wide latitude to redraw district lines in 2022, at the same time that 52 seats could be targeted for elimination.
“The potential for mischief making, I believe, becomes quite problematic,” Bradford said, warning of “some pretty brutal political maneuvering that is completely in the hands of a very, very few individuals.”
Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said an amendment would add delays in the constitutional amendment process and cautioned that combining two topics in a single bill could run afoul of the constitution’s single-subject requirement for legislation.
Smith, the former speaker, said in 2013 that a smaller Legislature would be more amenable to compromise.
“We may not always agree, but I believe that we will do a better job if there’s a smaller number of us because we will have a better understanding of what the other person’s problems are or what their constituents’ views are,” Smith said five years ago.
Both chambers approved the constitutional amendment overwhelmingly during votes that occurred during the 2015-16 legislative session. Amending the state constitution requires approval in both chambers during successive sessions, before voters get the final say.