PA House Speaker Sam Smith Calls for Smaller Legislature

By Jon Campisi
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 21, 2011

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Some say it’s too big and bloated. Others say it’s too costly. Then, there are those who say it’s simply ineffective, too partisan and, get ready for the shocker, too corrupt. Whatever your feelings are on the Pennsylvania Legislature, hear this: even the very men and woman serving our interests are fed up with the status quo.

Case in point: House Bill 153. Introduced by House Speaker Sam Smith (R-66th District), the bill is aimed at reducing the size of the Legislature by 50 seats. The move would shrink the House from its current 203 members to 153. Apparently, some leaders in Harrisburg are pressing to return Pennsylvania’s government to a more manageable level.

Maybe it has something to do with the costs involved in running what has been pegged the second most expensive state government in the country. According to figures compiled by the Pottsville Republican Herald, Pennsylvania is the sixth-largest state in population, yet has the largest full-time Legislature, and the second-largest governing body overall. The General Assembly’s $327 million annual budget puts it in the No. 2 spot behind California, whose budget is $344 million. On a per-capita basis, Pennsylvania’s Legislature is much more expensive, since California has three times as many residents as our commonwealth.

“Critics contend that the bill is too drastic, that it somehow would diminish democracy in Pennsylvania,” the Republican Herald wrote in an April 8 editorial. “Actually, the bill does not go far enough. The House easily could be halved, or converted into a part-time Legislature, or both.”

But the chances of actually shrinking Pennsylvania’s government may be slim: Reducing the number of seats in the Legislature requires amending the state Constitution. Which means HB 153 would need to pass the full Legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then be put before the voters. But aside from simply getting the ball moving, there’s another potential snag: At least one lawmaker who supports the bill has floated the idea of turning our system into a “unicameral” Legislature—one with a state House but no Senate. Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat who represents suburban Pittsburgh, and who is one of 60 co-sponsors of Smith’s bill, points to Nebraska’s unicameral legislature as an example of what works.

“The state Senate is the only true part of Pennsylvania government that does not parallel the federal system,” White wrote in an editorial on Canon-McMillan Patch, a local news website in western Pennsylvania. “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.”
So if the bill has to pass both chambers, and if one proposal is to eliminate the Senate all together, then what are the chances of senators voting in the affirmative, since it would essentially mean voting their jobs away? I think we all know the answer.

Sometimes, size and cost are mutually exclusive. Just look to the Granite State. New Hampshire has a population roughly the size of Philadelphia, yet it has a 403-member House, the largest body of its kind in the nation. But unlike Pennsylvania and other states, New Hampshire’s House is a throwback of sorts. It’s a part-time legislative body, or “citizen’s legislature,” whose members essentially volunteer to serve.

Some like the idea of having a part-time Legislature in Pennsylvania. “New Hampshire has not sank into the ocean because of it,” says Adam Lang, a Brewerytown resident and government-reform activist.

Lang says he likes the idea of a part-time, volunteer Legislature, since people running for office would be doing it for the right reasons. “You have a legislature very open to citizens who can draw from the average person … it’s more open,” he says. But it doesn’t mean he supports HB 153. Instead, he urges a serious look at the number of legislative staffers on the payroll. “If the goal [of the bill] is to lower the cost of the Legislature, there are much better ways to do that.”

If just one full-time staffer is cut from each district office of every representative, Lang says, that could translate to annual savings of about $8 million.

He adds that HB 153 could be about political power more than anything else. Fewer lawmakers means less resistance in passing bills. “People have to realize that there’s a political reason behind it, not just, ‘Oh it’s a way to save money,’” Lang says.  

Even so, the mere fact that legislators are even talking about government reform is a good thing, Lang concedes. House Bill 153 might be a long shot, but at least it serves as a dialogue-starter. 

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