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Editorial: Redistricting Bill

Pa. is losing its way

Today could have been a big day for reform in Harrisburg. Instead, it will be another day of partisan business as usual in the state capital. And Pennsylvanians are the losers.

A key House committee was scheduled to vote this morning on a bill that would revise the cynical way that Pennsylvania draws boundaries for its state legislative and federal congressional districts. The change is sorely needed.

But the committee chair, state Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) unwisely decided to scratch the bill from the agenda. Although Josephs co-sponsored the measure, she's now worried about giving the job of redistricting to a specific nonpartisan arm of the legislature.

That's a huge blow. The delay likely means preserving the state's destructive habit for another decade.

Pennsylvania is one of the most "gerrymandered" states in the nation- meaning its districts are carved into odd geographic shapes, splitting communities, to cram in as many Democratic or Republican voters as possible.

The politicians play this game to protect incumbents and to give the party in control of the legislature a partisan advantage.

That's why Monroe County in the Poconos, home to 160,000 souls, was split into six state Senate districts in redistricting after the 2000 census. The senators who represent slivers of Monroe reside in far-flung communities such as Allentown, Pottsville and Scranton.

The current redistricting bill, H.B. 2420, would take the job out of the hands of career politicians and give it to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. The bill contains sensible guidelines for boundaries: Don't divide communities whenever possible, and keep districts geographically compact. The measure has 92 co-sponsors in both parties in the House, and is supported by Common Cause/Pennsylvania and the League of Women Voters.

In canceling a committee vote, Josephs cited concerns by LRB's director that handling reapportionment could "indirectly compromise" the bureau's reputation for fairness. But the need for an impartial referee is exactly why the bill's sponsors chose LRB.

If Josephs' colleagues share her concern, they could have debated and found a solution. Asked why her committee couldn't hash it out at today's meeting, Josephs said, "We have a whole number of land transfers and other bills that sponsors are eager to address."

Goodness, we can't let a quest for better representation get in the way of land transfers, can we? Asked whether she was committed to approving a redistricting bill, Madame Chairwoman replied, "I don't have the power to make that commitment."

The Democratic and Republican leaders in Harrisburg don't want this reform. If a measure isn't approved by late June, it will be too late to implement in time for the 2010 census. The bill's sponsors need to push back, fast.