Proposal would shrink Pa.’s House of Representatives

Posted: January 24, 2012

HARRISBURG - It may have been one small step in the legislative process, but in the long, slow arc of efforts to streamline and modernize the Pennsylvania legislature, it amounted to a giant leap.

A House committee on Monday approved a bill to shrink the size of the House by 50 members, from 203 to 153.

The bill, sponsored by Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), cleared the State Government Committee in a bipartisan 16-8 vote and had the first of three considerations by the full House.

The bill would trim a legislature that is the second-largest in the nation. But a long road lies ahead for the proposal despite strong support in polls among voters and self-styled reformers who, after the ill-fated 2005 legislative pay raise, have sought sweeping changes in the way Pennsylvania government operates, from more openness in government to shifting to a part-time legislature.

The last time the legislature tried to reduce its own numbers was the mid-1970s, and that effort never got out of the House.

Changing the size of the legislature would require amending the Pennsylvania constitution - which entails passage by the legislature in two consecutive two-year sessions. Then the measure would have to be put before the state's voters for final approval.

If the proposal - which would not change the size of the 50-member Senate - clears those hurdles, it would take effect after the 2020 census.

Supporters said a smaller House would make government more efficient and reduce costs.

"Government should be rightsized," the committee's chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), said. "We should do more with less."

Opponents say the proposal - which would add roughly 17,000 residents to legislative districts which now represent about 63,000 residents - would burden rural lawmakers, who would have greater distances to travel, and increase the potential for influence by special interests.

"It reduces the legislator's independence and reduces one-on-one contact," said Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), who voted against the bill. "I've been independent of special interests."

Some critics of Harrisburg's status quo called it a step in the right direction.

"It is significant that a piece of reform legislation came out of committee, and it's important that it has support of the speaker," said Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, a group created following the pay-raise vote. "It's a little light in a dark cave. I'm hoping this is more than political theater."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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