Democracy Rising: Size matters, but how much?

Posted by By at 10 June, at 09 : 48 AM Print

Between budget updates, one particular constitutional issue keeps surfacing: the size of PA’s General Assembly.

There now are eight different bills (listed with links below) that would begin the three-to-four-year process of amending the PA Constitution, which currently provides for 50 state senators and 203 state representatives. Click here and scroll to Section 16.

Among the eight bills, there are proposals to reduce the Senate to as few as 30 members and the House of Representatives to as few as 121 members. Most proposals have effective dates of 2021, following the next census in 2020, but two proposals draw out the process to 2053.

Much of the interest comes from the recognition that PA has the largest full-time legislature in America with the largest complement of full-time legislative staff. This gives rise to two motives among the bills’ sponsors.

One is efficiency. This is the stated goal of the proposal by House Speaker Sam Smith, Jefferson, who proposes a House consisting of 153 members while leaving the Senate unchanged. Smith’s stated reason for his proposals is that a smaller number of representatives would be easier for legislative leaders to manage.

The other motive is saving tax dollars. Half of the proposals include mandates for cutting the budgets of the House and Senate by 20% or 40%, depending on how many seats are cut from each chamber.

No proposal includes an idea that is being discussed across the Commonwealth: eliminating one chamber or the other. This is not a new idea either in the United States or in PA. In 1776, the Commonwealth’s original Constitution included only one legislative chamber. Benjamin Franklin in particular believed in a unicameral legislature. The Senate was not added until years later.

Nationally, Nebraska eliminated its state Senate during the Great Depression. It is the only state with a unicameral legislature.

Also missing from any of the proposals is the question of how many constituents each member of the General Assembly should represent. This may be the most important, if not the easiest, question to answer.

The trick is to strike the right balance between having legislators represent enough people to be efficient but not so many that citizens cannot develop a relationship with their state lawmakers. Complicating the discussion is whether the internet has made communication so easy that it can substitute for face-to-face relationships and thereby increase the number of constituents each lawmaker can serve effectively.

Here’s the list of bills. Unless otherwise stated, the proposals would take effect in 2021.

SB 269 (Pippy). House = 161, Senate = 40. Mandatory 20% cut in House and Senate budgets.
SB 457 (Vogel). House = 131, Senate = 30. Mandatory 40% cut in House and Senate budgets.
SB 952 (Argall). House = 153 in 2053; Senate = 45 in 2033. Also increases the length of House terms to four years. No mandatory budget cuts.
SB 1079 (Schwank). House = 121; Senate = 40. No mandatory budget cuts.
HB 153 (Smith, S.). House = 153. No reduction in Senate. No mandatory budget cuts.
HB 183 (Godshall). House = 121; Senate = 30. Mandatory 40% cut in House and Senate budgets.
HB 876 (Kauffman). House = 153 in 2053. No reduction in Senate. No mandatory budget cuts.
HB 936 (Reese). House = 151; Senate = 40. Mandatory 20% cut in House and Senate budgets.
None of these proposals has received a hearing in the State Government committees of the House or Senate.

The variety of ideas and approaches to this subject make it ripe for debate at a Constitution convention. This is as it should be.

The size of the General Assembly is a matter for the people of PA to decide, not lawmakers. A Constitution convention is the best place to debate all of the options and issues, leading to a recommendation for citizens to accept or reject after the convention.

While each of the proposals above require voters to ratify them by referendum, it is not enough to give the House and Senate exclusive control over what goes on the ballot. Too many ideas will receive no hearing at all in the legislature, even if lawmakers pass one of the proposals.

It’s time instead to let the people decide whether to have a Constitution convention by placing a referendum on the ballot this fall. House Bill 763 by Rep. Scott Conklin, Centre, is the best approach. Now is the time to pass it. Click here to sign the petition for a referendum.

Photo by David Flores

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