March 20, 2018
Some Pennsylvania legislators pulled off a devious little trick last week, appearing to support a governmental reform measure while actually setting back that effort.
The state House voted, 109-80, to reduce its size from 203 members to 151 . That’s a sensible reform, since Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.
But Tuesday’s vote may stall such a reduction for two years, unless the state Senate undoes the House’s cynical maneuver.
Reducing the size of the House requires a change to the state constitution. To do that, the House and Senate must pass identical bills in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions. The proposed change is then placed on a ballot for voters to approve or reject.
The House and Senate in the 2015-16 session overwhelmingly approved a bill to reduce the House to 151 seats, which was proposed by State Rep. Jerry Knowles, a Republican from Schuylkill County. The House on Tuesday again approved that legislation, but State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County Republican, added an amendment to also reduce the Senate from 50 seats to 38.
That’s known as a “poison pill” amendment, designed to kill or stall an effort. Since the legislation is no longer identical to the 2015-16 version, the clock on this reform has been set back to zero.
Efforts to reduce the House or the Senate have popped up for years, but Knowles’ House Bill 153 had a better chance of becoming law. Pennsylvania’s House and Senate have been this size since 1874. And each year, they get more expensive.
Representatives and senators receive a base salary of $87,180, with leadership positions adding tens of thousands of dollars to that. With 2,524 employees, the General Assembly’s combined budget for this fiscal year is $325 million.
Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest state in the nation, outpaces all others in the size of its legislature, except for New Hampshire, which has a part-time “General Court” with 424 members who receive $200 per year.
If the Senate passes the altered version of Knowles’ bill and Gov. Wolf signs it into law, the House and Senate would have to approve it again in the 2019-20 session before voters could have a say.
The good news here is that the Senate can take the House’s derailed effort at legislative reform and put it back on track by stripping out DiGirolamo’s poison pill. The Senate should have more than enough votes to easily pass it this year.
That’s what Knowles says he is hoping for. That would send the bill back to the House.
There, House members would have just two options – support the original version or reject it. No more tinkering with poison pills. Any legislators who flip their votes from support in 2015-16 to rejection in 2017-18 would have to explain why they changed their minds. Any member who has consistently opposed the legislation can explain why Pennsylvania needs the largest legislature in the country for what amounts to a part-time job, with legislators reporting to Harrisburg for voting sessions only about one day out of five.
So, the Senate must act. Strip out the poison pill amendment. Pass the legislation and send it back to the House. Let’s call the vote.