Plan to reduce size of legislature a wolf in sheep's clothing
On April 21, the House State Government Committee, on which I serve, met to vote on H.B. 153, which would reduce the size of the House from 203 members down to 151. The committee voted to report the bill as amended to the full House for further consideration. The bill passed the committee with NO Democratic votes, and for good reason.
This bill and a related bill the committee also reported out as amended, H.B. 384, which would reduce the Senate from 50 to 37 members, sound like great ideas. Reduce legislators; reduce staff; reduce expenses. However, in the name of saving money, we would be undermining the key tenet of our democracy – local representation.
Current population estimates count more than 12,700,000 Pennsylvanians.
Under our current legislative system, one representative serves a district with an average population of about 62,500 people. Reducing the number of representatives to the targeted number of 151 would mean each representative would instead stand in for 85,000 Pennsylvanians. Each representative would be responsible for 33 percent more residents.
On the Senate side, with the current 50 senators, each represents more than 250,000 residents. Yes, a quarter of a million residents per senator. Reducing the number of senators to 37 would increase a Senate district by about 90,000 residents.
In other words, the legislation is asking us to give up local representation in an effort to save some money. I don't think the trade-off is a good deal for Pennsylvanians, especially city and minority residents.
For the past 50 years, minorities have been fighting for the right to vote and to get elected, and the biggest gains have been in our cities. Reducing representation in those cities will reduce the gains we fought so hard to earn. The mantra to save money is actually a plan to reduce minority representation.
In my mind, it is reminiscent of Muhammad Ali's Rope-A-Dope fighting style. Use the opponent against himself. That is what we would be doing by endorsing this plan.
For example, Philadelphia is currently served by 13 minority representatives. Using the numbers above, with some variations due to the uncertainties in the reapportionment process, the city would likely be served by only nine or 10 minority representatives.
When you consider the demographics of Philadelphia's city residents versus the more affluent suburbs, the lack of legislative access would be appalling.
City residents are less likely to have reliable, available transportation that fits their schedule.
Inner city residents are also less likely to have reliable computer and internet access. The digital divide is real. I know. I see it on a regular basis with my constituents.
Fortunately, we have a chance to prevent these changes to our legislature. Any changes in numbers of senators or representatives would require a constitutional amendment. To amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, both chambers must vote in favor of the legislation in two successive legislative sessions, and the bill must then be voted on by the electorate. Please keep this in mind in case the issue does come before us in the next few years. Do not be lulled in to the belief that it is all about saving money.
As chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, I have a real fear that in an effort to save a miniscule percentage in the state's budget, we will be asked to give up access to our local legislators. The PLBC remains vigilant in supporting all minorities in Pennsylvania and will not stand by while our hard-fought right to fair representation is dismantled in the name of saving money.