HARRISBURG - In what some are calling a historic vote, a State Senate panel today approved a bill to trim the size of the General Assembly despite some pointed misgivings.
"There is a general feeling that the size is too large. The question is, what size do we settle on?" said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the State Government Committee, moments after the panel voted, 8-3, for the bill that would ax one in five legislative seats.
The last time the legislature's ranks were trimmed was in 1968, when a rewritten state constitution stripped six seats from the House.
Longtime political observers say that not since then has the proposal, introduced in some fashion for three decades, won as much as a committee backing in either chamber.
Authored by Sen. John Pippy (R., Allegheny), the bill would shrink the legislature from 253 members to 201. The House, under the bill, would decrease from 203 to 161; the Senate from 50 to 40. The bill also calls for a corresponding decrease in the legislature's budget, a move that would save about $70 million annually.
Reducing the size of the legislature means each lawmaker would have to represent more constituents, limiting personal contact, said Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.), the committee's ranking Democrat.
The public, he said, would therefore have "a less representative government."
"This flies in the face of what people are trying to do – to make us more accountable," added Williams, who voted against the measure.
Several members of the committee, mindful of the focus the public is paying on efforts to make Harrisburg more accountable, voted for the bill, although they expressed deep concerns with it.
One, Sen. Terry Punt (R., Franklin), called the proposal "a feel-good bill."
Other than reducing the number of legislators, the bill doesn't accomplish anything, he said.
"It's nothing more than a same old product wrapped up in a new cellophane wrapping," added Punt, who said he is considering "dusting off" a bill he introduced years ago calling for a unicameral legislature like that in Nebraska.
Pennsylvania's legislature is among the biggest and costliest in the nation, with a staff of 3,000 and annual budget of $348 million. Only New Hampshire, with 424 lawmakers, is larger. But the Granite State has a classic citizen legislature, with each member paid $100 a year.
The bill's future, however, remains uncertain when and if it reaches the full Senate. And, because it would change the state's constitution, it must pass both chambers in two consecutive terms of the legislature before the voters would have the final say in a ballot question.