Updated 6:11 p.m.
MT. WOLF, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf is willing to call a special session on redistricting reform if leadership in the General Assembly can reach a compromise, he said for the first time Thursday.
“Even before I had the honor of being elected Governor, I supported removing politics from redistricting, as well as a true independent commission to draw Pennsylvania’s lines,” Wolf said in a statement. “Though bills have advanced in the legislature to address this issue, I urge leaders in the General Assembly to come together to finalize a compromise before the end of the month. If they do, I am ready to call a special session for a vote on a consensus, bipartisan redistricting reform proposal.”
A bill that would create a citizens commission to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional and legislative boundaries passed the state Senate in mid-June — but when it was sent to the House, it had an amendment attached that some Democrats considered a “poison pill.” Dems as well as Republicans added even more amendments to the bill, seemingly in order to sink it, and the House left for the summer without casting a vote.
Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican, could still call members back to Harrisburg, but signaled he would not do so with so many amendments attached. That’s why the demonstrators turned to Wolf, who per the Pa. Code can call a special session “whenever in his opinion the public interest requires.”
Even with Wolf’s call, it’s unclear if House and Senate leadership will be able to find common ground. Earlier in the day, a staffer from Turzai’s office responded to a request for comment on negotiation efforts by citing the hundreds of amendments to SB 22.
“The vast majority of those amendments were filed by Democratic members and leaders,” the staffer said via email. “It would appear that they are not serious about the issue or they would not have filed so many amendments.”
A spokesperson for House Democrats also had no news to report regarding negotiations.
Wolf’s statement came on the same day protesters set up camp outside his home to demand a special session.
“We understand the urgency of creating fair ways of drawing our maps in order to have a voice in our democracy,” Xelba Gutierrez, a March for Harrisburg founding member and organizer, said as the heat index outside Wolf’s home pushed 95. “We are willing to put our bodies, in multiple ways, in some risk in order to push this issue.”
Fair Districts PA didn’t protest outside Wolf’s home, but the group had been emailing, calling, and using social media to reach the governor with its call for a special session.
“Time is of [the] essence,” Wolf continued in his Thursday statement. “I have always been committed to a fair process, and continue to be ready and willing to work with the House and Senate to truly reform our system.”
Wolf is right: Time is — seriously — running out. Redistricting reform that includes legislative boundaries requires an amendment to Pennsylvania’s constitution. In order for that to happen by the next census, both chambers must pass the same bill this session. A bill with the same language has to pass again during the following session. Then the proposed change goes to the voters.
While advocates and some lawmakers have floated this session’s deadline as July 6, that date is arbitrary. If lawmakers pass the bill, the Pa. Department of State will be required to prepare ads that will run in two papers in each commonwealth county in August, September, and October. The ads must begin running three months before the general election, per the constitution.
Advocates for redistricting say they’ll continue to push lawmakers including Wolf on redistricting.
Carol Kuniholm, co-founder of Fair Districts PA, said via email “legislative leaders seem to have made it quite clear that they are incapable of compromising unless called back in a way that puts their conversations clearly in the public view.” She said Wolf should “call a special session and insist that the legislative leaders start over with a clean bill and put that bill to a vote.”
March on Harrisburg plans to pressure leaders from the House or Senate, according to a group member, and has given Wolf one week to call a special session. If he doesn’t, they’ll continue to protest — “regardless of [the] legislature reaching consensus.”