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Shrinking the Legislature: Is it Time to Think Smaller?

For real efficiency, why not eliminate the state Senate?

Last week, I agreed to co-sponsor House Bill 153, bipartisan legislation sponsored by House Speaker Sam Smith designed to reduce the size of the state Legislature by 50 seats, taking the House of Representatives from 203 members down to 153.

The main reason I signed on to this bill is because my constituents have made their feelings very clear — they feel that Pennsylvania’s Legislature is too big and bloated and should be downsized.

House Bill 153 would require a constitutional amendment, which must pass the full legislature in two consecutive sessions and then be placed on the ballot for voter referendum. By law, that process would take until approximately 2016. If passed, we would use the data from the 2020 census to reconfigure the legislative districts.

People have criticized this time frame as too long, especially in our culture of instant gratification, but ignoring the state constitution for the sake of expediency is simply not a legal option. Large-scale changes to our forms of government are designed to be somewhat difficult and require long-term continuous support — otherwise, every group of people who take control could reconfigure the system to create their own banana republic and chip away quickly at our well-defined system of representative democracy.

To put it another way: It’s supposed to be hard to make big changes so shady people don’t rig the system to benefit themselves.

I have heard their thoughts on the issue of the size of the Legislature, and I am not so arrogant to ignore the wishes of the people I represent. If people want a smaller Legislature, then I have no problem with the sentiment. However, I am somewhat confused about what exactly will be accomplished by eliminating 50 representatives.

Depending on what you want to achieve, there may be quicker and more efficient ways to address the issue.

If your goal is to save taxpayer money, which is certainly valid, there are other avenues. Eliminating 50 representatives will likely not decrease legislative staff very much, which is where the real cost savings would come into play. If the legislative leaders still have the ability to spend freely on staff, you’re not looking at saving much money.

I have proposed cutting the legislative appropriation in the budget and limiting compensation for staff, and the past two state budgets actually decreased spending on the legislative branch.

If your goal is to minimize the influence of special interests, realize that by decreasing the number of seats in the Legislature, it will be much tougher for “non machine” independent candidates to mount effective grassroots campaigns to get elected, and much easier for lobbyists and special interests to influence the ones who do get elected.

In other words, someone like me would have probably never been elected in the first place, because the model of knocking on doors and working a manageable district of 65,000 people would likely be replaced by big-money, big-media campaigns that favor the well-connected candidates chosen by party bosses in Harrisburg.

If your goal is efficiency and accountability, why not simply eliminate the state Senate and go to a unicameral legislature? Nebraska does not have a senate and it does just fine. The state Senate is the only true part of Pennsylvania government that does not parallel the federal system. The federal Senate is designed to give smaller states equal representation, but population dictates seats in both the Pennsylvania Senate and the House of Representatives.

By eliminating the state Senate, you would eliminate 50 legislators without increasing the size of districts. Moreover, accountability would shoot through the roof, because there could be none of the gamesmanship that goes on now where bills move between the House and Senate with no real action ever taking place and one chamber blocking a good bill for political reasons.

A unicameral House of Representatives would be much more reflective of the political climate in Pennsylvania, and the cost savings would be much more substantial. This is in no way an indictment of any of the sitting state senators; they are hard-working public servants who do the best job possible within the confines of the current system.

But if you want to make large-scale changes to the legislative branch of government, a unicameral system would almost certainly get you the most bang for your buck.

These are just some factors to consider the next time someone implies that if we could just reduce the size of the Legislature, all of Pennsylvania’s problems would be solved overnight. I am supporting House Bill 153 because even though it may not be my ideal solution, it is the beginning of an important conversation that I know people want to see happening in Pennsylvania government, and I work for the people.

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