Anti-gerrymandering bill amended by Pa. Senate GOP; Democrats call it 'poison pill'

Pennsylvania Budget
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa.

With time running out to alter how Pennsylvania’s political maps will be drawn in 2021, Republicans in the state Senate made a dramatic change to a redistricting bill Tuesday that prompted key activists to pull their support and begin lobbying against it.

One day before the bill came up for a final vote in the chamber, State Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster) introduced an amendment that would allow voters to decide whether appellate judges — including state Supreme Court justices — should be elected from regional districts rather than statewide.

Democrats described it as a “poison pill” and an attempt to retaliate against Democratic state Supreme Court justices who just five months earlier voted to overturn the state’s congressional lines on the ground that they had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

“Every one of you in this room knows that the reason we are doing this today and forcing it into Senate Bill 22 is because [Republicans] want to retaliate against the Supreme Court,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday.

>> UPDATE: Pa. Senate passes anti-gerrymandering bill with ‘poison pill’ judicial districting amendment

Activists also decried the move.

“We think it’s an inappropriate betrayal of the public trust,” said Carol Kuniholm, head of Fair Districts PA, the umbrella coalition leading the redistricting reform efforts in the state. She promised to make the amendment a campaign issue in the November election.

Republicans leaders rejected any notions of retaliation. They noted that many appellate judges hail from Allegheny County and Philadelphia  and described the amendment as an effort to ensure that people from other parts of the state are represented in the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts.

Under the bill, a commission would be set up to draw congressional and legislative boundaries.

“It’s the obvious time,” said Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre). “I’m not sure when else you would do it.”

It was unclear whether the changes, and the loss of support from key activists, would tank the bill. Senators voted by 31-18 to add the amendment. All Democrats voted against it, as did State Sens. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) and John Rafferty (R., Montgomery).

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to send the full bill, with the Aument amendment and other smaller changes, to the Republican-controlled House.

Even if the bill passes the Senate, some of the proposals would require changes to the state Constitution, meaning the bill must pass both the House and Senate in the exact same form during two consecutive legislative sessions. Voters then could decide whether to approve or reject the ideas.

Although the measures are contained in one bill, Senate officials say they would appear as separate questions on the ballot — one asking whether a commission should be established to draw election boundaries, and another asking whether districts should be set up for judicial elections. Voters would hypothetically be able to vote to create a commission but vote against forming judicial districts, or vice versa. If both pass, the independent commission would also draw the lines for judicial districts from which judges would be selected.

Should changes occur in time to affect the next redrawing of election lines — in 2021 — a bill would need to pass both chambers by early next month.

Aument said he thinks his amendment will increase the bill’s chances of passing in both chambers, but Democrats were skeptical.

“It does not help one bit as far as Democrats are concerned,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats. House Republicans have publicly said only that they will evaluate the bill if it passes to their chamber and that they are working to learn how their caucus feels about various redistricting proposals.

Activists, meanwhile, are turning their attention to other plans. Several other redistricting reform proposals are sitting in the House Rules Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Dave Reed, who has introduced his own proposal.

Groups that have dropped their support of the Senate bill and refocused on House legislation include the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Common Cause PA, and the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good government group.

“What happens next? We’ll see what happens tomorrow. We’ll see what the House does. We’ve got three weeks left on the clock,” said David Thornburgh, head of the Committee of Seventy.

And if time runs out?

“There are other plays that are still possible,” he said.