HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – For weeks, Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers have been speaking out against the preliminary map, approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, for state House voting districts.
Unlike the Congressional map, which was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf last Wednesday, the state House and Senate maps are drawn and approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC).
The LRC consists of party leaders from both the House and Senate, as well as a non-partisan chair.
Given the partisan nature of redistricting, the chair often has the final say.
House Republicans are trying to change that.
“This unnecessarily splits communities, and it does harm to communities that has been unexplained and is unnecessary,” said House Republican Caucus Spokesperson, Jason Gottesman about the preliminary map. “I think everybody has now come to the agreement or realization that the current state redistricting process doesn’t work,” he added.
Gottesman says unnecessary splits and unanswered questions in the preliminary House map are driving his party to take matters into their own hands, by means of a proposed Constitutional amendment.
“It’s axiomatic that Pennsylvanians choose their lawmakers instead of lawmakers choosing their voters, and this is something that would ensure that this happens,” said Gottesman.
House bill 2207, sponsored by State Government Committee Chairman, Representative Seth Grove (R- York), is the vehicle for the proposed amendment that would give voters the final say on the ballot.
The decision voters would have to make if Grove’s legislation passes, would be to decide ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a ‘Citizens’ Legislative Reapportionment Commission.’
“This puts more power in the hands of the people and takes power away from the legislators in a way that’s never been done before, and it’s frankly something that’s been asked for a long time and we’re trying to find a way for it to work,” said Gottesman.
“Put it before the people to say, hey, do you want a citizens’ commission to do this, that would ultimately give a proposal to the legislative body for approval, or do you want one person to continue to draw the lines,” said Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Bradford).
Owlett serves as a member alongside Grove on the House State Government Committee. He says the current process needs improvement.
“Ultimately, we’re looking at this saying, is this the best process to actually draw lines? Where you have basically one person who has decided that they’re going to draw the lines. I don’t think that’s the best process,” said Owlett.
The proposed commission would consist of eleven total members, with eight members chosen by the General Assembly. Republicans say there is specific criteria to ensure the eight members are nonpartisan:
Members and their spouses must not have held public office or held a state or federal job; been registered as a federal or state lobbyist; or been nominated as a candidate for office or served as a staff member or officer of a political party, political body, political committee or political action committee for at least five years prior to serving on the commission.
Additionally, counties would vote to select two members and the final member would be a former Commonwealth Court judge selected by current Commonwealth Court judges.
“I personally like the idea of moving forward with a citizens’ commission. This has three components. It has the Citizens’ Commission piece of it for the citizens, it also has the county commissioners, it also has a former judge from the Commonwealth Court,” said Owlett. “Those are three very distinct groups of folks that have a lot of knowledge in what it would look like to draw lines,” he added.
Democrats say Grove’s legislation is the latest attempt to undermine the legislative process, adding that Republicans have recently been making habit of it.
“My colleagues on either side of the aisle are making, a terrible habit really, of legislating by referendum and quite frankly, that’s not how the system was designed,” said House Democratic Policy Committee Chairman, Rep. Ryan Bizzaro (D-Erie). “They don’t get their own way, and therefore they’re trying to put things on the ballot and push for it in sort of unorthodox kind of ways,” added Bizzarro.
Opponents of Grove’s legislation argue it would give more power to the majority party in Harrisburg and not the citizens in future redistricting.
“Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly want fair districts, and hopefully we’re going to be able to give them to them,” said Bizzarro.
HB 2207 is expected to receive second consideration in the House sometime this month.
Even if it passes, it likely won’t appear on the ballot until next year. Then, voters will have the final say on how they think state voting districts should be drawn roughly ten years from now.