Fewer seats in legislature? Lawmakers from region split on asking question

Efficiency has a cost, and local state legislators are split on whether that cost is too great regarding two pieces of legislation that passed the state House Tuesday, which would reduce the size of the state General Assembly.

One bill that proposes to reduce state representatives from 203 to 153 passed 148-50, and the bill that would reduce state senators from 50 to 38 passed 150-48.

To take effect, the House and Senate must pass it twice in consecutive sessions, and it would go to the public for a vote. If approved, the changes would take effect after the census and reapportionment in 2020.

State Reps. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, and Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, voted in favor, while state Reps. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, and Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven, voted against the measures.

The reason for the legislation is a “herding cats” issue for Everett, saying it’s sometimes difficult to get that many people to come to a consensus.

“A smaller, leaner assembly we think would be more effective,” Everett said.

While Baker voted in favor in order to move the conversation forward to gather more input from his constituents on the matter, he had reservations about “unintended consequences,” such as marginalizing rural areas.

He fears it could “lessen the influence and representation of rural districts, and there may be fewer rural state representatives fighting for rural constituents on issues important to them,” Baker said. “Rural districts become much larger when you add 20,000 individuals, and these may be merged with urban areas, so rural areas could have less of a voice.”

Baker said he has many unanswered questions.

“When you eliminate 50 legislators and 12 senators, ultimately, who decides which districts are being eliminated, which members are being eliminated, and at what cost? No one seems to have an answer at this point in time,” Baker said. “Arguably, it could be decided on the next reapportionment as part of redistricting, but depending on who’s in power at the time, they could carve up districts in a one-sided fashion based on geopolitical landscapes.”

Baker’s bottom line: “I’m willing to advance the discussion this time around, but I’ll reserve final judgment until I have discussions with my constituents.”

Everett addressed the rural marginalization issue, and said both urban/suburban and rural areas would be reduced by 25 percent, so it would be equal proportionately.

Representing 80,000 instead of 62,000 wouldn’t be that significant of a change for Everett, and said modern technology and social media allow for easier, faster exchanges with constituents.

The legislation would be done in the redistricting process, Everett said, but it doesn’t state where as the population density can’t be predicted.

Mirabito said face-to-face time with representatives is extremely important, and if this becomes law, it would mean “sizable travel distance.” He argued the bills would hurt urban areas less due to population density.

He said it would hurt “representation in Pennsylvania” and noted the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau opposes it.

Plus, “This legislation strengthens the leadership more than the rank-and-file legislator,” Mirabito said, adding the redistricting process needs to be reformed to be transparent and fair.

Regarding money, Mirabito said it would not save a significant amount of money, and the possible efficiency gained is not worth the possibility of rural representation lost.

Hanna could not be reached for comment by press time.