Good-government efforts to end Pennsylvania's historic gerrymandering have hit a snag created (oddly) by good-government groups.
Not good timing.
It comes as a compromise redistricting reform bill is positioned for votes in the Senate — a rare if not unprecedented moment – as soon as next week.
Yet 14 activist left-leaning organizations, including Keystone Progress, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, the NAACP, and Planned Parenthood just announced opposition to the bill on the ground it makes things worse, not better.
So much for compromise. So much for unity.
Although there's likely a reason hard-left progressives want to keep redistricting as is rather than support change. More on that in a bit.
Marc Stier, Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center director, says the compromise bill "has loopholes you could put a fairly large elephant through. … It eliminates the governor and the [state] Supreme Court from the process, and it gives the legislature even more control."
Ah, a split among those most often seeking reform.
That sends a mixed-message to lawmakers. It could well reduce already-long odds of getting anything done.
"We're frustrated," says Carol Kuniholm of Fair Districts PA, the grassroots group that spent two years in statewide education and advocacy efforts to end gerrymandering. She supports the compromise bill.
"We're at a point where we're actually moving forward. The bill is going to be amended. Let's wait and see what the bill actually is. … To stop this process now is shortsighted," she says.
At immediate issue is Senate Bill 22, crafted by Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon). It creates a citizens' commission to draw both congressional and legislative maps. Currently, maps for Congress are done by legislation; maps for the legislature are done by legislative leaders.
(Remember, despite the state Supreme Court this year controversially creating new congressional districts, the same redistricting process that produced the old, outlawed districts remains in place. And, unless altered, that process is up to bat again after the 2020 census.)
Thus, there's been a push for a citizens' commission aimed at reducing partisan politics in the process.
S.B. 22's 11-member map-drawing citizens' commission is to reflect the state geographically, politically, gender-wise and racially. But selected members must be confirmed by a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate. Same with final maps if the commission can't reach agreement.
That legislative final say is at the root of arguments against S.B. 22.
Stier says he has great respect for work done by Fair Districts but adds, "I think they're a little naïve."
Kuniholm argues there will be no reform "if we choose an avenue the General Assembly won't sign off on." And, she says, there's an amendment to be offered allowing the Supreme Court, if the commission can't agree, to choose among redistricting options created by the commission, rather than the court again creating its own maps.
These and many more details remain in limbo and up against a ticking clock that – due to rules regarding constitutional amendments – means unless reform legislation passes by July 6, there can be no constitutional change in time for the 2020 census.
But it's clear there are progressive that want no such change. They see a Democratic-majority state Supreme Court. They expect Democratic Gov. Wolf's reelection. And they assume that combination would stop any further overt gerrymandering by what's likely to continue to be a Republican legislature.
It is, therefore, more than preferring purer legislation over possible legislation. It's also betting the present process favors Democrats next time around.
Sort of ironic. A GOP redistricting edge that brought gerrymandering to public consciousness and set the stage for change could end up turning into a Democratic redistricting edge setting the stage for no change.
Unless, of course, the thought of that spurs GOP action.
I'd note House Republican Leader Dave Reed has a redistricting change bill just referred to the House Rules Committee. This means it avoids certain death in the State Government Committee, where such bills normally end up, chaired by change-averse Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler).
Confused? Don't be. Dealing with redistricting, the virtual heart of politics, means dealing with a complex mess.