Time is running out on a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the Pennsylvania legislature to reform itself, and perhaps restore voters’ faith in Harrisburg lawmakers’ ability to govern beyond their own self-interest.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers must act on a bill that would reduce the size of the state House by 25 percent. The looming deadline must be met for the measure to get on the May primary ballot. That would allow enough time for new district maps to take effect with the 2020 census.
But hurdles remain. Reducing the size of the House requires amending the state constitution. Any constitutional amendment must be approved by the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before going to voters.
The bill was approved in the last session and awaits a second vote. But for the past year, House Bill 153 has sat in the State Government Committee. If lawmakers don’t act by mid-January, another decade will pass before the next census provides an opportunity to redraw the districts.
Reducing the size of the House will not solve all the state’s problems. But it will eliminate one dubious distinction: Pennsylvania has the largest and most expensive full-time legislature in the country.
Each of the 203 House members is paid at least $87,000 a year, plus $159 per diem and free health-care benefits. (Ranking members are paid more. For example, House Speaker Mike Turzai’s salary is $135,000.) Elected officials are eligible for a generous pension and free health care for life at age 55 and 10 years of service.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill) is the primary sponsor of a bill that would reduce the size of the House to 151 members. Knowles believes a smaller House would be less unwieldy and more cost-effective. Trimming the size of the House would save taxpayers $15 million a year.
The same logic applies to the state Senate, which has 50 members, though that is not part of the bill. That should be next. Pennsylvania does not need half the number of senators the entire country has.
Even if the proposed reduction were to take effect, Pennsylvania would still have more House members than California, New York, or Texas, all bigger states.
The Pennsylvania legislature is not known for its effectiveness. For years, the state has struggled to pass a budget on time. Nearly half of the state’s registered voters believe Pennsylvania is on the wrong track, according to a Franklin and Marshall poll in September. An earlier poll placed the legislature’s approval rating at a paltry 14 percent.
The Republican-controlled legislature often talks about smaller government. Here is a bill that matches the rhetoric.
Finally, Pennsylvania is not a model of good government. A parade of lawmakers has been convicted of corruption in recent years. Several studies have ranked the state among the most corrupt.
Expecting the House to act on a measure to reduce its membership may require an extra push from voters. Voters should contact their representative at http://www.house.state.pa.us/. Let him or her know how you feel about H.B. 153.