Capitolwire: Legislative downsizing runs out of steam during budget season.

By Gideon Bradshaw
PLCA Intern

HARRISBURG (July 15) – Like New Year’s resolutions to get fit, proposals to pare down the state Legislature into a leaner, meaner governing machine fizzled out in the summer heat.

Two bills in the Senate would have allowed Pennsylvania voters to decide whether to trim a combined total of 55 seats from the two chambers of the Legislature by amending the state constitution, but time has likely run out to advance these proposals this year.

The state constitution mandates that the Legislature approve any amendment at least 90 days before the general election, set for November 4. Both legislative chambers must approve the amendment again during the next session. The vote is then put on a ballot in a general election.

To meet the three-month deadline, the Senate has to approve them by early August. No Senate session is scheduled before then.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said two main factors led to these small-government proposals stalling out.

First was the end-of-June scramble to approve the 2014-2015 state budget. Second, members from both parties saw these constitutional-amendment bills as a vehicle for their own plans to amend the constitution.

Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, sponsored the bill in the Senate. He envisioned the plan as a way to cut back on the costs of the state Legislature. When he first proposed the bill, it was aimed at cutting back 40 percent of the Legislature – more than 100 seats between the two chambers.

“People are concerned about the size of our government, and at the end of the day, the people should get to decide,” Vogel said.

After a string of amendments in committee and on the Senate floor, the final version was more modest: it would have cut five seats from the 50-member Senate.

By then it was June 26. Members from both parties still had plans to slip their own constitutional amendments into the bill, including ones unrelated to downsizing the Legislature.

“It became clear that it would be difficult to get an up-down vote on the issue of the bill, which was the size of the Senate,” Pileggi said.

He said he expected the same to happen if he tried to bring the bill kicked over from the House for Senate approval, which proposed downsizing the House from 203 to 153 seats.

“There was no indication that they wouldn’t have introduced those amendments if the House bill came up for a vote,” Pileggi said.

Before approving either bill, the Senate would have to consider each of those additional proposals, which presented a challenge during the budget time crunch, Pileggi said.

“We were up against a deadline the last couple days,” Vogel said. “We got pretty close to the finish line, so I guess we’ll have to try again.”

This wasn’t the first time he sponsored legislation to shrink the Legislature. He proposed a bill during the 2011-12 session to cut down on state lawmakers, and plans to push for similar proposals in the future.

Vogel’s plan and the companion House bill attracted bipartisan support from lawmakers, even from some who disagreed with his reasoning that it would mean savings for taxpayers.

“I don’t think downsizing members would save costs,” said Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, adding that larger districts could force the remaining lawmakers to open more district offices.

All the same, he said he wanted to let voters decide.

“The people of Pennsylvania have the constitutional right to make that decision,” Folmer said.

Sen. Matt Smith, D-Allegheny, said innovations like smartphones and widespread availability of the Internet would let lawmakers serve larger districts without opening more offices.

“Nowadays, people can reach us. Ten or 15 years ago they’d have had to schedule a face-to-face meeting to communicate their views. Now they can just shoot off a quick email,” Smith said.

Some senators were concerned that the proposal would leave senators from rural areas hard pressed to serve their districts.

Scott Sikorski, a senior aide for Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Corman was “skeptical” about whether to support a measure that would increase senators’ district size.

Some senators from rural districts already serve up to eight counties.

“[Corman] doesn’t see the wisdom of decreasing representation,” Sikorski said.

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