HARRISBURG - In a vote some are calling historic, a state Senate panel yesterday 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 E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the State Government Committee, moments after it 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 periodically in some fashion over the course of 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 go 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.
But reducing the size of the legislature means each lawmaker would have to represent more constituents, limiting personal contact, said Sen. Anthony H. Williams of Philadelphia, 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 putting on efforts to make Harrisburg more open, voted for the bill although they expressed deep concerns with it.
One, Sen. Terry L. 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. In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers make a base salary of $73,614.
Earlier this year, Gov. Rendell publicly called for a smaller legislature, and the Speaker's Reform Commission in the House is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the topic today.
Still, the Senate bill's future remains uncertain. 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. A similar bill is pending in the House.
While endorsing a plan to cut the legislature's size, the panel was not willing to back a bill instituting term limits for House and Senate members.
In a 2-9 vote, the committee rejected a bill sponsored by freshman Sen. John H. Eichelberger (R., Blair) to limit new House and Senate members to eight years in office.
Fifteen other states have some version of term limits.
But some committee members argued yesterday that voters in Pennsylvania already have the ability every election to institute their own term limits.
At the hearing, Punt addressed Eichelberger, who won his Senate seat by defeating a longtime incumbent, Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, last year.
"You are proof that term limits . . . made by voters on election day work," he said.
Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D., Phila.), another no vote, also addressed Eichelberger.
"That's called democracy, man," he said. "People have the right to decide who they want to represent them."
In separate votes, the committee also approved bills to change the way congressional seats are carved up every 10 years and to ban votes in Harrisburg between the November general election and the end of the two-year legislative term. It's during that lame-duck period in which a flurry of bills are passed, in assembly-line fashion, often without lawmakers knowing exactly what they are voting on.
Public-interest groups that came into prominence after the 2005 legislative pay-raise debacle said yesterday's votes indicate long-sought movement toward changes in Harrisburg.
"The committee set the political compass in the direction of reform," said Eric Epstein, founder of RockTheCapital.org. "Now it is up to the Senate to plunge into the deep end of the reform pool."
Kathleen Daugherty, cofounder of DemocracyRisingPa, said "the fact that they even had this discussion today says that senators are listening to their constituents."
To read the Senate bill (No. 248) to trim the size of the General Assembly, go to http://go.philly.com/trimEndText