Pa. House (again) flees the chopping block

Pennsylvania Budget
The Pennsylvania House is escaping reducing its size, despite having voted for reduction. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I owe you an update, and you’re probably not gonna like it.

Last month, I wrote about an effort to reduce the size of the legislature. I wrote about it because it reached a critical point where one more vote could send the issue to a statewide ballot question this year.

I wrote about it because legislative veterans, on background AND on the record, were saying, yep, this time it’s happening, we’re going to cut our size, save lots of money, increase efficiency, and show that reform is on the horizon.

And in the second sentence of that column, I wrote, “I’m skeptical.”

Someday, I’d love to have my skepticism regarding politicians proven wrong. Today is not that day.

If you missed it – since it clearly was timed to be missed – the GOP-run House last week dropped a poison pill into a bill to cut the House from 203 to 151.

I’ve occasionally mentioned Pennsylvania’s got the largest, most expensive, full-time legislature in America, costing you $300 million-plus annually for care and feeding, and giving taxpayers in return — well, you tell me.

Three Stooges-style entertainment?

Anyway, on the eve of Gov. Wolf’s budget address, and as the state political world and media chased after new congressional maps since our Supreme Court ruled current maps “palpably” unconstitutional, the House was voting on HB 153.

It allows for a voter referendum to amend the state constitution to cut the House. Because of that, it needs to pass the House and Senate in two successive sessions. It passed both last session by wide margins. The Senate said if it passed the House this session, the Senate would pass it, too.

So, we’re all set, right?

Nope. Just before 9 p.m. Feb. 5, State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo offered an amendment to also cut the Senate from 50 to 38. It passed, 114-81.

It’s a bill-killer. The Senate isn’t going to cut its size because its size is reasonable. In fact, since we have 67 counties, makes sense to me to have 67 senators. And maybe no House at all. Unicameral, baby. Get things done.

When I phone DiGirolamo, who voted last session to cut only the House, he says: “I figured you’d be calling on this.”

I say something like, “And I figure you’ve got a reasonable explanation for why you did what you did.”

“I’ve been practicing,” he says, quickly adding, “Please don’t use that.” I laugh and say, Too late, it’s too good.

He offers this: “I think if we’re going to do this, the Senate ought to be part of it.”

Then why, last time, vote only to cut the House?

Never mind. It’s because most lawmakers don’t want to cut either chamber. Because even if they voted once to do so, when it comes to voting to do so for real they flip like fresh-caught fish on the slippery deck of a trawler.

Last session, 139 House members of both parties voted to cut the House: 107 Republicans; 32 Democrats.

Last week, only 81 members, all Republicans, voted to stop DiGirolamo’s bill-killing amendment. Every Democrat voting supported it.

(C’mon, think Democrats really want to cut government?)

Politically, it’s perfect. Saves the House. Saves all members. Flippers tell voters: “I voted to cut the legislature. Not only the size of my own chamber, but the other chamber as well. Please reelect me.” And the beat goes on.

I reached out to a few who voted one way then the other, among them Philly Republicans Martina White and John Taylor, and Montgomery County Democrat Matt Bradford. It won’t surprise you to know they didn’t reach back.

The sponsor of the bill to cut the House, Schuylkill County Republican Jerry Knowles, says, “I’m very disappointed.” And of his colleagues, “I don’t know how they explain it back home.”

If interested, go to legis.state.pa.us. Find your legislator. Compare votes on HB 153 last session to votes on DiGirolamo’s amendment last week. If your lawmaker voted “yes” on both, maybe ask why.

Is there still time to get this to a ballot question. Technically, yes. Knowles says he’s not giving up. He adds, “I’m not optimistic but I’m hopeful.”

As for me? Still skeptical.