OK, look, this is what they’re saying.
Like you, I’m skeptical, but let’s play it out.
The sponsor of a bill to reduce the size of the legislature, Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill), says he has assurances from House bosses – Speaker (and wannabe governor) Mike Turzai and Majority Leader Dave Reed – that the bill will get a vote soon.
House leadership spokesman Steve Miskin says, “yes,” that’s true.
The oft-intractable chairman of the House committee holding the bill, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), tells me he plans to move it soon.
And while “soon” in the legislative world can mean anytime next millennium, Metcalfe says “soon” is next month or March or “definitely before May.”
That would give the Senate enough time to pass it and put it to voters as a ballot question in November.
And Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Joe Scarnati, says, “If the House passes it, the Senate will as well.”
Wait. Seriously? After years of trying? Cost savings and maybe efficiency in the nation’s largest, most expensive, usually useless “full-time” legislature?
Could this actually happen?
It requires amending the state Constitution. That means passing legislation in two successive sessions and then putting the question on a statewide ballot.
This bill (HB153) passed the House and Senate last session. It cuts the 203-member House to 151 members, a 25 percent reduction.
The Senate would remain at 50 members. But, hey, it’s a start.
If approved by voters, a smaller House with new districts could be put in place right after the 2020 census.
Knowles says estimated taxpayer savings are $10 million to $15 million per year.
Metcalfe says passing it “gives the legislature the ability to say `we led by example’ ” to reduce the size and cost of government, in hopes the executive and judicial branches follow suit.
Knowles adds that in the 50 years since House membership was set at 203 (at the last Constitutional Convention), improvements in communications technology make it far easier for fewer members to be in touch with more constituents.
Plus, he says, “a smaller legislature makes for better discussions, cleaner debate, and more opportunity for each member to make their feelings heard.”
So, there’s that.
But why, in an arena of self-serving greed and incumbent protection, would members vote themselves out of office?
When they passed the measure the first time, votes were large: 139-56 in the House; 43-6 in the Senate.
Now, you could say (as I did) that vote wasn’t for real. First vote does nothing. Just a tease. Plenty of time to forget about it. Lots of ways the legislature can distract voters with other issues.
Yet, here we are with leaders on the record saying it’ll happen.
One theory is Republicans (who control both chambers) want a high-profile reform issue in an election year for the full House and half the Senate as a hedge against any oust-incumbent efforts and/or any Democratic wave splashing down the ballot.
Also, it sure wouldn’t hurt Turzai’s run for governor to wave that reform flag on the campaign trail.
And, remember, leaders who would draw new districts for a smaller House certainly save their own seats first. They’ve got nothing to lose.
Question is, Will rank-and-file members (likely thinking, “Hey, if I vote for this, either I or the guys next to me or the woman in front of me are gone”) support it?
Knowles says, “I don’t see how you can vote for it the first time and not vote for it this time.”
Metcalfe says: “I hope there’s enough public pressure. A majority of the people want this. There should be more pressure in an election year.”
It’s just hard to imagine. But it is what they’re saying. And it’s worth hounding. And it certainly ought to happen.