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Pennsylvania House votes to cut own ranks, trim Senate

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Pa. Legislature

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state representatives took a step Tuesday toward trimming dozens of members from the Legislature, the latest move in a campaign to amend the state constitution that for several years has frustrated its supporters.

The House voted 139-56 to cut their own ranks from 203 to 151, and voted 146-49 on a companion measure to reduce the Senate from 50 to 37.

To become law, the proposal has to pass the Senate by the end of 2016 and get through both chambers again by December 2018. After that, voters would get the final say in a statewide referendum. The governor has no formal role.

Supporters said there is considerable public support for a smaller General Assembly and argued the change could make legislative business more manageable.

"It's not a lot of money in terms of the big scheme, but $15 million, where I come from, is a lot of money," said the prime sponsor of the House measure, Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill. "Reducing the size will also make for a more efficient Legislature in building consensus. It will also make for better discussion and clearer debate. This has nothing to do with control."

If enacted, the change would add about 22,000 people to a typical state House district, now at about 62,000. Opponents argued that will make it more difficult for lawmakers to respond to individual constituents, particularly in more sparsely populated, rural areas.

"In my mind, it will empower the special interests and lobbyists," said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon. "They'll be getting a 25 percent discount on access to this body."

The House has considered similar bills for the past two sessions, and so far nothing has made it out of both the House and the Senate.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said the change would not save much money in the context of the state's 80,000-person workforce.

"Don't you think the service you provide is more valuable than many other state employees out there?" Vitali told fellow lawmakers. "If you don't think you are more valuable, then you shouldn't be here."

Pennsylvania operates the largest full-time legislature in the country, said Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny. The only larger body is in New Hampshire, which has 424 part-time legislators.

"That statement alone should be enough to persuade you," Saccone said. "Because that statement is ringing in the ears of our constituents back home."

The reduction would be performed through the state's redistricting process, which some have criticized as nakedly partisan.

"Our constituents all across Pennsylvania would like us to reform Harrisburg and reduce the power and influence of the party leaders," said Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton. "They do not want us to concentrate additional power in the hands of those party leaders."

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said the debate was a distraction from more pressing issues.

"Every poll that I've seen shows that more than this, they want a Marcellus shale tax," Sturla said. "And here we are, four months into this session, we haven't seen that yet. And they want that many more times, more than they care about whether or not the size of the Legislature is 151."

The proposal is a matter of self-governance and a reflection of the will of the people, said Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

"The constituents want the right to vote on this very issue," Cutler said. "They want to see us live exactly the way that we're asking them to do, to do more with less. They want to see a reduction in the size and scope of government."

The Pennsylvania House began approaching its current size in the late 19th century as part of a set of reforms aimed at limiting the power of the Pennsylvania Railroad and other corporate interests.


Posted earlier on Cumberlink:

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House is debating whether to reduce its own 203-member size by about a quarter, to 151 representatives.

A final vote on the proposal in the House could occur as early as Tuesday in Harrisburg.

Reducing the size of the Legislature requires a constitutional amendment, so it has to pass both chambers in two consecutive two-year sessions.

This marks the third session that the reduction has been considered, and so far nothing's made it out of both the House and the Senate.

There's also a pending proposal to cut the number of senators from 50 to 38.

On Monday, the House defeated Democratic-sponsored amendments to tie the House and Senate reductions together in a single bill, and an attempt to limit the role of politics in drawing district lines.

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