Why are legislators pushing for a smaller legislature now?

We sometimes roll our eyes when politicians talk about cutting the size of legislature. Sure, it sounds good on the campaign trail, but the political realities of life in Harrisburg make it nearly impossible to actually do. After all, lawmakers are usually not enthusiastic about voting to eliminate their own jobs.

But something real might be stirring in Harrisburg now. Rep. Sam Smith -- who is almost certainly going to be the next Speaker of the House -- said yesterday that he supports the idea of a smaller legislature.

"I've come to the conclusion that a smaller number of members would make the House more manageable," Smith told a room packed with reporters, lawmakers, and lobbyists as he sketched his caucus' agenda for the next legislative session.

Smith's statement is significant enough by itself, but there are even more signs that change may be coming to Harrisburg.

His comments received favorable reviews from a key figure in the state Senate. "It's only a question of how much smaller," Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said Thursday.

Again, the argument to shrink the legislature is nothing new. Pennsylvania's legislature has 253 members, making it the second largest in the nation. The state is also near the top when it comes to the number of staff and salaries for lawmakers. As a result, operating costs for the state legislature are the highest in the nation, costing the state a whopping $322 million in FY09, and the idea of cutting back gets tossed around, usually by advocates.

Why might lawmakers be taking this issue seriously now? First of all, many Republicans campaigned on political reforms, including cutting the size of the legislature. But we also think that cutting the legislature could be a prelude to cutting other things. After all, if Republicans are going to ask the general public to deal with major cuts in the next budget, it only seems fair to cut the size of the legislature as well. Or at least to talk about it.

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