Reduce the Legislature? Don't hold your breath
State House Speaker's Sam Smith's bill to reduce the size of the bloated Legislatures is significant simply because he is the most powerful member of the House. The bill to reduce the size of the House by 50 members, from 203 to 153, quickly drew more than 60 cosponsors, mostly Mr. Smith's fellow Republicans.
But like most stabs at reform by members of the Legislature, this one does not go nearly far enough.
At a time when Gov. Tom Corbett and many lawmakers seriously pursue cuts that would eviscerate public education from pre-kindergarten through college, Mr. Smith's proposal makes clear that lawmakers themselves have no intention of sharing in the sacrifice.
To Mr. Smith's credit, he recognizes from the speaker's chair that the 203-member House is excessively large and needlessly unwieldy. His proposal is aimed more at greater efficiency in the legislative process rather than at reducing the Legislature's cost.
Pennsylvania is the sixth most populous state but it has the largest full-time state legislature and second largest overall. With an official budget of $327 million, the General Assembly also is the nation's second most expensive state legislature, behind California's at $344 million. But on a per-capita basis, Pennsylvania's is far more expensive, considering that California has three times as many residents as Pennsylvania.
Mr. Smith's bill illustrates how each generation of state lawmakers evades reforms. Ever since the legislative pay raise fiasco of 2005, reformers had urged lawmakers to move quickly on reforms, including reducing the size of the Legislature. Everyone knew that a reduction would require a constitutional amendment, the process for which includes passage by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and a statewide referendum. Reform advocates urged quick action in order to be ready for redistricting, which is about to occur.
Now, even if Mr. Smith's bill passes and the constitution is amended, the change would not occur until 2022, after the next census.
Even so, critics contend that the bill is too drastic, that it somehow would diminish democracy in Pennsylvania.
Actually, the bill does not go far enough. The House easily could be halved, or converted into a part-time Legislature, or both.
As of now, Mr. Smith's bill demonstrates that this Legislature is no more interested in reform than any of its predecessors.