Biting back at academic argument to keep Pa. legislature large | John Baer

HARRISBURG
The State Capitol building in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania has the nation’s largest full-time legislature.

OK, it’s on.

I was gonna let this pass. But since it’s such an old saw of mine – one I still hope someday cuts through – I can’t let it go unchallenged.

I refer to a recent opinion piece by a couple of smart guys at Franklin and Marshall about how our bloated, underachieving legislature not only shouldn’t be reduced in size but probably should be made larger.

To quote my oft-used reaction to so much in Pennsylvania politics, PUH-leez.

I’ll grant the authors of the piece, F&M College Poll methodologist Berwood Yost and F&M government prof Matthew Schousen, know their data, know their history, and are, of course, entitled to opinions.

It’s just that in this case, they’re wrong.

Their arguments for not reducing our legislature include: wouldn’t save that much money; a big legislature in a state so populous is good for constituent service; a smaller legislature “probably” wouldn’t be more efficient and could lead to “poorer representation.”

Poorer representation? I honestly don’t see how that’s possible.

But let’s look at the big picture.

Pennsylvania, fifth most populous state, has the nation’s largest full-time legislature: 203 House members; 50 senators. Know how many “full-time” legislatures there are? Four: California, Michigan, New York, and, well, you know.

Know how often our “full-time” legislature meets? About 70 days a year.

New Hampshire has the largest legislature, 424 members. But Granite State lawmakers are paid $100 a year, no per diems. Yep. $100 per year.

Our lawmakers’ base pay is $87,100 plus per diems up to $180. So, New Hampshire taxpayers can foot the annual salary of their entire legislature for less than half of what it costs Pennsylvanians to pay for one lawmaker.

Oh, and Pennsylvania lawmakers get automatic annual raises, plus great pensions and the best health care your money can buy.

Our lawmakers are second-highest paid. California pays more, $104K. But California has less than half the number of our lawmakers with more than three times the population.

As to cost-saving, current estimates suggest reducing our House to 151 would save taxpayers $15 million per year.

Not that much, maybe, in the universe of state spending. But plenty in terms of service to (pick a need) veterans, unemployment comp, health clinics. Or anything, since anything’s more worthwhile than spending on our legislature.

And saying a smaller House in a big state is bad since it leaves lawmakers with more people to represent and less contact with constituents misses two points: technology and social media allow constant contact; and the four states larger than ours (and 13 of the 15 largest states) have smaller Houses and larger constituent-to-lawmaker ratios, yet somehow seem to manage.

(I’d note none of these states rank as low or lower than Pennsylvania’s 46th in a 2017 report on best-run/worst-run states by the financial website 24/7 Wall St.)

As to issues of efficiency and representation, I’d simply point to our legislature’s record of bumbling issues of public importance, from taxes to debt, from education to ethical behavior, and, of course, annual failures to get budgets done on time.

Seriously, how could fewer of them do worse?

A current size-reduction effort (House Bill 153) sits in the Senate. It’s there because the feckless House pulled a fast one. After both chambers last session approved cutting the size of the House (changes need to pass in two sessions and be approved in a voter referendum), the House this session amended the bill to also cut the Senate, from 50 to 38.

But the Senate’s not going to cut its size, which is, after all, reasonable. It could, however, again pass House cuts. And send that back to the House in a reelection year. Politically nasty but publicly welcome.

While House and Senate are both led by Republicans, their leaders are not BFFs. And I’m told the Senate’s still deciding what to do with the reduction issue. So, hope lives.

As it should. This is one of many long-neglected reforms to start restoring public trust in Pennsylvania politics. And it makes sense — no matter the view of academics.