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Pa. redistricting reform not dead … but close to it

Many people acknowledged that when the House departed Monday, the chances of reaching an agreement on redistricting before the deadline seemed to dwindle.

The congressional map imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in February.
The congressional map imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in February.Read moreStaff graphic

HARRISBURG — With the state House gone, many activists are now acknowledging what they had long feared: Absent an extraordinary development, Pennsylvania won't have an independent commission to redraw election lines the next time around.

When the Republican-controlled House closed session Monday evening, Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) told representatives to enjoy time with their families this summer. The chamber holds all of the major redistricting reform bills, and state officials say they would need to pass something by the end of the first week in July in order to stay on track for eventual voter approval.

While the representatives could be called back into session, lawmakers and activists agree that the chances of reaching an agreement before the deadline have dimmed.

"Well, we came close. We're proud of how far we got, we're proud we made it a statewide conversation," said Carol Kuniholm, the head of Fair Districts PA, a coalition of volunteer activists and groups leading the redistricting reform movement in the state.

But close wasn't what Kuniholm and others had hoped for.

"This is a bit of a sobering moment for us," she said, "because we're saying, 'Will we ever get a toehold strong enough to bring about the change that we want?' We're not sure."

Propelled by a wave of support after a state Supreme Court decision that knocked down prior congressional district maps as a partisan gerrymander, legislation to create an independent commission to draw election lines — rather than having lawmakers do it — advanced further this session than in anyone's memory.

A bill that would allow voters to decide whether to create an independent commission passed the GOP-led Senate earlier this month. But it came with a catch: It included a measure that would allow voters to decide whether appellate judges — including the state Supreme Court justices who overturned the prior map and imposed a new one — should run in districts rather than statewide. To some, the amendment was a "poison pill"; to others it was a sweetener.

And in the House, two dozen lawmakers from both parties had proposed a combined 604 amendments to that bill. Some would require the commission to create a website, another would require a unanimous commission vote to approve maps, and another would stipulate that changes would go into effect only if Virginia and Maryland each enacted similar legislation.

Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that sorting through such a pile of amendments at the end of a session would be difficult. As a result, staff members for House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) met Tuesday to begin negotiating which amendments, if any, could proceed, but no breakthroughs were reported.

They hope to learn "Can we come to agreement on the basic issues?" said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Reed and House Republicans.

If they do, Turzai's office has said he's open to bringing representatives back to vote on the measure.

But even Dermody acknowledged that trying to create consensus on a hot-button topic like gerrymandering is difficult, especially in a tight time frame. Changing the process would require a constitutional amendment, meaning it must pass the legislature in the exact same form in two consecutive sessions. The Department of State says a bill would have to pass for the first time in early July to make this year's ballot.

Meanwhile, legislators still seem unsure about compromise.

Dermody and Reed have said in recent weeks that they think changing the system for the future — even if they miss the cutoff for affecting the next district redrawing in 2021 — could be beneficial.

"I think it is important that we work at getting it right," Dermody said.

That leaves activists with complicated emotions.

"I'm disappointed but not defeated," said Micah Sims, the head of Common Cause PA. With the failure of the constitutional amendment, he said, activists and lawmakers should take a step back and discuss the road ahead.

Part of Sims' hope comes from the wave of activism that he feels has helped turn gerrymandering from an arcane policy issue to a hot political topic. Legislators have openly credited the advocacy with propelling the legislation this far.

"Who would ever think that on June 25 we would still be around having a conversation about redistricting in Pennsylvania?" Sims said. "A number of people wrote this off a long time ago, so I am encouraged about the fact we are still talking about it."

Now, though, some wonder whether groups can continue to corral that enthusiasm when the publicity surrounding this year's court wrangling wears off and the reality of legislative inaction sets in.

Getting multiple organizations on the same page might  prove as difficult as creating consensus among lawmakers.

Many reform groups had already disagreed on some changes to the current redistricting bill. Asked what comes next, leaders in the reform movement presented different — and occasionally conflicting — ideas for how to proceed. Some groups want to continue pushing for the creation of an independent commission; others want to work for legislation that doesn't require a cumbersome constitutional amendment but clarifies current mapmaking criteria in hopes of limiting partisan mischief. Some want to lobby lawmakers for more public input in the 2021 redrawing and to make it a campaign issue. At least one group wants a panel to study redistricting commissions elsewhere.

An uphill climb lies ahead, activists said, but none were ready to give up.

"People put their hearts and souls and weekends and evenings into this for the better part of the last couple years….but I truly believe the energy that's created out there is just not going away," said David Thornburgh, head of the Philadelphia-based Committee of 70.

"Everyone understood that this was like trying to scale Everest with ropes and some old hiking boots and no oxygen. So, okay, [we] gave it our best shot," he said, and ended up "much further than anybody expected. Game's not over, there's still work to do, next wave of energy, off we go."