HARRISBURG - A bill to reduce the size of the Pennsylvania legislature withstood a battery of criticism to easily clear the state House on Wednesday, the first such vote by lawmakers to trim their own ranks in 45 years.
The bill, which passed 140-49, would reduce the House from 203 seats to 153 and the Senate from 50 senators to 38 - thus relieving the state of the dubious distinction of having America's second-biggest state legislature.
The proposal now goes to the Senate, where the concept, at least, has the support of Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), sponsor of a similar bill pending in that chamber.
Through spokesman Erik Arneson, Pileggi said late Wednesday that he was "glad the first hurdle has been overcome" and aimed to move the Senate version this spring.
Because the bill would amend the state constitution, it must be passed in two consecutive two-year sessions of the General Assembly and then approved by voters in a statewide referendum.
That means the measure could make its final journey through the legislature as early as January, when the new session begins, and reach the statewide ballot as soon as next spring.
The change would not be effective, however, until 2022, after the 2020 census.
"I believe that reducing the size of the House will make the legislative process more efficient, because members would communicate better and understand the other person's problem," said House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), lead sponsor of the bill. "And I think that will create better legislation at the end of the day."
Dissenters in both parties, rural and urban, spent two hours on the floor Wednesday arguing against the bill. Some said it would limit the effectiveness of lawmakers to serve constituents, some of them miles apart, in sprawling districts.
"I still have constituents who don't have computers," said Rep. Martin Causer, a Republican who represents the largest geographic district in the state, reaching into Cameron, Potter and McKean Counties in north-central Pennsylvania.
Others warned that the change would put more power in the hands of lobbyists.
"On the surface it sounds like good government, but the effect will be the opposite," said Greg Vitali (D., Montgomery). "The problem with the legislature now is the dominance of special interests. The more people we represent, the more dependent we are on special interest groups' money to get elected."
The reduction in the number of House districts would bump districts' size up from roughly 64,000 residents to about 84,000, Smith said.
House Democratic leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) accused top Republicans of blocking efforts to amend the bill to include what he called "real" reform, such as tougher campaign finance curbs, lobbyist disclosure, and gift limits.
"Reform should be more than a campaign slogan. When you have as large a majority as the Republicans do, at some point you have to deliver the goods," Dermody said in a statement.
Smith defended the bill as a good start.
"Some say it's not enough reform," the House speaker said. "I say it wasn't proposed as the be-all and end-all of reform in the legislative world. There are many other things we have to do."
G. Terry Madonna, pollster and political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College, said surveys he has conducted over the years indicate that, in general, reducing the legislature's size is popular with voters. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only New Hampshire, with 424 lawmakers, has more legislators than the Keystone State.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) praised the bill as an example of the Republican-led effort to "rightsize" government. "We stand for smaller government," Turzai said, "including a smaller legislature."