In the next few weeks, the Pennsylvania legislature has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our politics as well as our state finances.
Due to a map-drawing error at the Constitutional Convention of 1968 – yes, you read the date right – that hasn't been resolved in 50 years, our state has the largest full-time legislature in the nation.
That gives us an unwieldy state House of 203 individual members, each of whom makes over $87,000 a year – more than double Philadelphia's median household income of $41,000 — without counting generous per diem benefits at the taxpayers' expense. Even worse, our lawmakers have the highest base pay of those in any state except for California. Pennsylvania's is the largest full-time legislature, and the most expensive.
Wonder why our politics are so sclerotic, and building consensus in Harrisburg is so difficult? The size of our state legislature is one of our foundational problems.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill), the primary sponsor of a bill to shrink our state House by about a quarter, thinks a state House of 151 members will be more capable of addressing the problems we face: underperforming schools, environmental and regulatory issues from natural gas extraction, and underfunded state pensions that could bankrupt a generation of retirees. The proposed size of 151 will still give Pennsylvania a larger state House than much bigger states like New York, Texas and California. Districts will still be small enough that representatives will have a personal relationship with many of their constituents.
Knowles' bill passed overwhelmingly through both legislative chambers in 2015, but state law mandates that an identical bill be passed by both chambers before a looming mid-January deadline. Only after passing in two consecutive legislative sessions can it be offered to voters as an amendment to our state's constitution, and it must pass by mid-January to reach voters by our May 15 primary. And only if it reaches voters by May 15 can it come into effect with the 2020 census. But as the clock ticks down, the bill languishes in our House State Government Committee.
If the vote isn't scheduled by mid-January, Pennsylvanians can anticipate another 10 years of political stagnation, since districts are redrawn only once a decade according to the census. It also means the estimated $15 million annual savings – money better devoted to our yawning pension shortfall – won't be realized either.
If the measure reache a vote, it will likely pass the House and sail through our state Senate, which won't be downsized. Then voters will have the final say at the ballot booth.
The main obstacle is getting the measure to the House floor for a vote. Whichever House member manages to do so – whether through a committee or a "discharge resolution" to release the bill to the floor – will be a hero to Pennsylvanians of all political persuasions.
But politicians have a funny habit of burying reform efforts through procedural stalling. A similar measure gained momentum but ultimately failed in 2013.
Are Pennsylvanians going to have to live with our indefensibly large state legislature for another decade or more?
Across the country, we witness an unprecedented crisis of confidence in our political system and our elected officials. If our politicians seek to earn and keep trust, the solution isn't so complicated: they must promise what they'll do, and do what they've promised.
Even in this era of rapid political change, there's one promise almost every voter recognizes about Republicans, and that's that we wish to reduce the size and scope of government in our lives. If our elected officials want to make campaign rhetoric into reality, they should seize this rare opportunity for real action.
At the end of the day what motivates most politicians is reelection; Republicans in the state legislature should not need reminding that our party faces significant headwinds coming into the 2018 cycle. If we're to avoid the fate of Virginia, where a historic Republican majority was nearly wiped off the board in last month's off-year elections, Pennsylvania Republicans should be running, not walking, to ingratiate themselves with moderate and swing voters. Passing Rep. Knowles' measure, running on a good governance platform, and shoring up our state's finances are the best way to preserve majorities in both legislative chambers.
Pennsylvania voters, meanwhile, should be watching H.B. 153 closely, and ensuring that the rare chance to bring our state legislature back to Earth doesn't vanish into the depths of a House committee.