Is the Penn­syl­va­nia Leg­is­la­ture re­ally too large?

The Community Connection - - OPINION - Jerry Shenk Colum­nist Con­tact colum­nist Jerry Shenk at [email protected]

For years, bills have been in­tro­duced in Penn­syl­va­nia’s Gen­eral As­sem­bly to re­duce its size. Thank­fully, all failed. Penn­syl­va­nia’s Leg­is­la­ture may be too small.

True, Penn­syl­va­nia’s is among the largest, costli­est leg­is­la­tures in Amer­ica, but, although re­duc­ing it is widely thought to be a so­lu­tion, it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the cor­rect one. De­pend­ing upon how it’s done, in­creas­ing the size of Penn­syl­va­nia’s lower cham­ber could im­prove rep­re­sen­ta­tion for every­one and make gov­ern­ment more re­spon­sive to more cit­i­zens.

In­creas­ing the size of the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives would mod­estly shrink the av­er­age num­ber of con­stituents rep­re­sented by each mem­ber, ben­e­fit ru­ral con­stituents who are al­ready ge­o­graph­i­cally re­moved from dis­trict of­fices, make ger­ry­man­der­ing more dif­fi­cult, and al­low for the in­fu­sion of new tal­ent into the Leg­is­la­ture.

Ad­di­tion­ally, while the cur­rent ar­range­ment en­sures that, as ex­am­ples, Philadel­phia con­ser­va­tives and Perry County lib­er­als are un­der- or un­rep­re­sented in the State House, more dis­tricts would af­ford both bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties, sta­tis­ti­cally, at least, to in­flu­ence their rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The United States Con­sti­tu­tion cre­ated the U.S. Se­nate and Elec­toral Col­lege to pre­vent post-Colo­nial Amer­ica’s pop­u­lous coastal en­claves from en­act­ing pub­lic pol­icy detri­men­tal to the ru­ral in­te­rior.

Penn­syl­va­ni­ans need po­lit­i­cal buf­fers, too. Only Penn­syl­va­nia’s ur­ban and sub­ur­ban ar­eas, party cau­cus lead­er­ship (fewer cats to herd), and spe­cial in­ter­est lob­by­ists (fewer cats to buy) would ben­e­fit from down­siz­ing.

A smaller Penn­syl­va­nia leg­is­la­ture would erode ru­ral in­ter­ests while pri­or­i­tiz­ing those of ur­ban/sub­ur­ban vot­ers. But, in­creas­ing the size of the state Leg­is­la­ture would have the ef­fect of lim­it­ing the abil­ity of Philadel­phia, Al­legheny and their con­tigu­ous coun­ties to con­trol state re­sources at the ex­pense of smaller and ru­ral coun­ties.

Adding reps would in­crease the num­ber of in­ner-city dis­tricts, too, but those would crowd neigh­bor­ing dis­tricts to­ward the suburbs, push sub­ur­ban rep­re­sen­ta­tives out farther into more ru­ral ar­eas, while adding ru­ral dis­tricts with lit­tle risk of sub­ur­ban di­lu­tion.

Cur­rently, each rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the leg­is­la­ture’s lower cham­ber serves about 62,000 con­stituents. The Leg­is­la­ture’s to­tal costs ex­ceed $300 mil­lion an­nu­ally, or about 0.009 per­cent of the to­tal state bud­get, so the av­er­age cost per House/Se­nate dis­trict slightly ex­ceeds $1 mil­lion.

Head count aside, sig­nif­i­cant costs of main­tain­ing the Leg­is­la­ture are fixed, so the ac­tual di­rect cost per dis­trict is much lower. How­ever, there are ways to con­trol or lower dis­trict costs even while adding rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Penn­syl­va­nia’s Leg­is­la­ture is ripe for re­form. Pub­lic of­fice was never meant to be a ca­reer. Penn­syl­va­nia could re­turn po­lit­i­cal sinecures to pub­lic ser­vice by mak­ing the Leg­is­la­ture part­time and by re­duc­ing mem­bers’ com­pen­sa­tion.

At min­i­mum, Penn­syl­va­nia should elim­i­nate leg­isla­tive pen­sions and life­time health care ben­e­fits. The Com­mon­wealth’s Con­sti­tu­tion didn’t pro­vide for them, and pen­sion/ben­e­fits elim­i­na­tion would have much the same ef­fect as term lim­its.

In ad­di­tion, mem­bers’ per diems should be re­stricted, and re­port­ing/over­sight of au­tho­rized per­sonal spend­ing strictly ad­min­is­tered. Scrap se­nior­ity rules — se­cret bal­lot­ing by the ma­jor­ity party’s cau­cus should as­sign com­mit­tee chairs. The Com­mon­wealth’s rules on ethics, cam­paign fi­nance and lob­by­ing should be strength­ened and rig­or­ously en­forced.

The real so­lu­tions to Penn­syl­va­nia’s fis­cal prob­lems lie in re­form, in­clud­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture. While we’re wait­ing, size mat­ters.

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