John Baer: To draw election maps, pols should have crayons

Posted: February 22, 2012

AND NOW a report from the "The Island of Misfit Toys."

It's at least possible that one broken mess in Harrisburg starts to get cleaned up this week. Possible, that is.

This broken mess is the one around the Legislature's once-a-decade job of drawing new House and Senate maps to reflect population shifts after a census - a/k/a gerrymandering redux.

The job should be finished by now, but you know how your Legislature operates.

Its first attempt was rejected by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional because the pols divided more municipalities, even political wards, than the court deemed necessary.

Having had most of last year to work on this just wasn't time enough, I guess.

Lawmakers, of course, contend it's the court's fault, saying the new map is less unconstitutional than the current one.

Blame is a blood sport in the Capital City.

Anyway, today, the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission, made up of four legislative, ahem, "leaders" and a chairman of their choice, meets again and could approve a new map.

I should mention that the chairman of their choice didn't originally exist.

See, the two Democratic and two Republican members - that would be Pittsburgh Rep. Frank Dermody, Pittsburgh Sen. Jay Costa, Pittsburgh Rep. Mike Turzai and Delco Sen. Dominic Pileggi, respectively - couldn't agree on a chairman.

I know, shocking.

So the state's high court picked Stephen McEwen, a former state judge and a long-ago Delco D.A., which is to say a staunch Republican from the era of the Delco GOP "War Board."

I should mention that the high court is 4-3 Republican, also the party of Chief Justice (and former Philly D.A.) Ron Castille.

If the commission approves a "preliminary" map today, that starts the clock on a 30-day period of public comment. After that comes a "final" map and another 30-day period for "exceptions" to be filed with the high court.

Good luck with those, by the way.

Behind all this focused public service and openness looms the state's scheduled April 24 primary, which, if you're good at math, you've already figured occurs too soon for the new districts since there'd be no time for candidates to file.

So we could be using the old map to elect the entire House for the next two years, and half the Senate for the next four years, despite the fact that the Constitution says we should be using updated districts.

Meanwhile, there are six House vacancies, three in Philly, and a pending lawsuit to get the House speaker to call special elections to fill them because a quarter-million citizens currently are unrepresented.

(Former Reps. Dennis O'Brien and Kenyatta Johnson are now on City Council; former Rep. Jewell Williams is the new sheriff in town. The other vacancies are Montco Commissioner Josh Shapiro's old seat, one in Pittsburgh and one in the Lehigh Valley. Four of the six were held by Democrats.)

Yesterday, House Speaker Sam Smith said he can't order special elections until there's a new map. He also said that since there could be a new map AFTER the primary's run with the old map, "it's conceivable" we'd face another primary later in the year using the new map.

He actually made my head hurt.

Meanwhile, taxpayers pay for a commission whose work should already be done, pay to maintain and staff district offices with no elected officials, pay to respond to lawsuits and maybe pay for extra elections, all for who-knows- how-long.

Which reminds us that leadership in Pennsylvania is like a slinky on a staircase: it moves only when pushed - and even then unhurriedly.

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