HARRISBURG — Pennsylvanians are closer than ever to being granted the power to cut the size of their 203-member House of Representatives, an idea that has been pitched and rejected time and again over the decades.
A Republican state lawmaker said House leaders have assured him his bill putting the question before voters is “going to fly” early enough in 2018 to get it on the November ballot.
The lawmaker, Rep. Jerry Knowles of Schuylkill County, said his bill would save taxpayers millions of dollars and foster a closer, more cooperative environment in the House.
“Any time you can save $10 million or $15 million it’s helpful in terms of budgeting. But the bigger picture is when you have a smaller body there will be better debate and discussion and more opportunity for a member to have his or her voice heard,” he said.
Critics, however, argue the move would harm constituents. And they point out the savings would have little impact on the state’s budget problems and could force the remaining House members to hire more workers given their larger districts.
“We’re definitely going to need more staff,” said Rep. Cris Dush, a Jefferson County Republican and one of the few GOP lawmakers who oppose the legislation.
There were about 2,350 legislative staffers working in Pennsylvania in 2015 — about the same number as in California and behind only New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Political observers are skeptical about the Legislature’s commitment to passing the bill, given leadership’s reluctance to give the topic serious consideration over the decades. The size of the House and Senate — which make up the largest full-time legislature in the United States — hasn’t changed in nearly 150 years.
“It’s hard to imagine politicians voting to put themselves out of a job,” said Franklin & Marshall College pollster Berwood Yost.
Still, both the Republican-led House and Senate voted in 2015 to reduce the size of the House by more than a quarter, to 151 members, in 2022; the legislation would leave the 50-member Senate intact. If that legislation passes again this year — to amend the state constitution a bill must pass in two consecutive sessions — a referendum will be placed on the ballot for approval by voters.
And House Speaker Mike Turzai, who supports the measure, was clear about his intentions to move the bill. “We’ll be doing that again this year,” he said.
But whether lawmakers will move in time to get the referendum on the November ballot is another question. The bill remains in the House State Government Committee. It would need to be approved by both chambers by early June to make it onto the election ballot in 2018.
Reducing the House to 151 members would mean the number of constituents represented by each would grow to 84,800 from about 63,000. It would also save taxpayers about $4.5 million in salaries; the base pay for those 52 lawmakers is $87,100.
The savings is but a small portion of the state’s $32 billion budget, $325 million of which goes to the four legislative caucuses. “As far as the state budget goes, this is not the most significant spending item, but it’s something,” said Robert Speel, a Penn State Erie political science professor.
Some citizens worry about the impact on representation and the power structure in Harrisburg; rather than giving rank-and-file members more influence, a reduction in size could concentrate power in fewer hands, said Jim Rodkey, the leader of a conservative citizens group in Lebanon.
“There are so many red flags,” he said. Rodkey said he has good access to lawmakers in his area now. They would be further removed and harder to reach with larger districts, he said.
In addition, critics say lawmakers would be forced to spend more time raising money for re-election to get their messages out across larger districts.
“The House is one where that person should have that personal contact rather than trying to rely on radio and television and newspaper ads,” Dush said.
Knowles, the prime sponsor of the House-reduction legislation, said the technology available to elected officials today — telephone town halls, email newsletters, for example — allows them to reach more people efficiently.
“It may involve doing a little bit more work to represent 84,000 people but I don’t see it being a big deal,” Knowles said.
Yost, the head methodologist for the statewide Franklin & Marshall College poll, said he didn’t have any recent data on the popularity of cutting the Legislature.
But he has a hunch.
“If it goes to referendum,” he said, “I think it’s probably likely to pass.”