GOP to Wolf: Your redistricting commission is a ‘distraction’

A group of former lawmakers think it’ll take a major overhaul for reform to pass.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Updated: Dec. 3, 9:35 a.m.

While almost all Pennsylvania elected officials agree redistricting reform is still needed, there’s no consensus on how it should be done.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s creation of a bipartisan commission this week to tackle the issue has rankled Republican leaders.

Announced Thursday, the commission will “study best practices related to non-partisan redistricting process, engage the public in a dialogue” around those principles, and make recommendations to the governor and legislature. A report is due by or before August 2019, according to Wolf’s executive order.

Wolf appointed 12 members to the commission, including Committee of 70 President David Thornburgh, Erie County’s Democratic leader Kathy Dahlkemper, and former Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Allentown who resigned this year after announcing his retirement.

But GOP leadership aren’t sold on the “bipartisan” part.

Republican leaders in both General Assembly chambers released a statement decrying Wolf’s executive order as a “spectacle [that] only serves as a distraction to the work the legislature has been doing to examine the redistricting process in Pennsylvania.” A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said leadership would not appoint lawmakers to the commission, as they are directed to do in the order.

Fair Districts PA, the nonpartisan grassroots organization that has been pushing for an independent redistricting commission since 2016, is pleased with Wolf’s proposal, per a statement — but believes more immediate changes may be necessary in order to make it effective. The group held a town hall in Harrisburg on Dec. 1 to discuss this and other ideas.

Changing the rules

The General Assembly will start fresh with new legislation when it reconvenes in January, but it’s not like redistricting reform hasn’t already been attempted.

Two viable redistricting bills died different deaths last session.

A House bill introduced by Bethlehem Democrat Steve Samuelson and co-sponsored by a majority of the body was gutted by Republicans in Daryl Metcalfe’s State Government committee. A Senate bill was voted out of the chamber after an amendment to make judicial elections non-partisan was tacked on. Democrats and Republicans in the House proposed dozens of amendments that ultimately sank the bill’s chances, according to leadership.

Democrat Sen. Lisa Boscola released a memo Saturday announcing her intention to reintroduce a bill to create an independent redistricting commission. On the same day, Republican Sen. Mike Folmer said he would introduce “legislation to amend Pennsylvania’s Constitution to change how Congressional and General Assembly election maps are drawn.”

What’s to stop additional attempts at reform from suffering the same fate? Perhaps a change to some of the underlying rules of the House, say a cohort of former lawmakers.

Patricia Carone-Krebs, who served as a Democrat then a Republican in the House in the ’90s, has formed an informal bipartisan group to help advise Fair Districts on a path forward. Participants — including Dave Steil, a Republican from Bucks County who co-chaired the Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform in 2007 — are all former legislators who during their tenures pushed for rule reform.

The current effort is focused on giving rank-and-file lawmakers more of a voice — building on movements started decades earlier.

That 2007 commission, Steil said, focused on “trying to ensure that the legislative process was more transparent, especially in the timing that it took to move bills from one place to another.” It successfully brought about some changes, including more time between first, second and third readings of a bill so lawmakers could actually review amendments.

What they didn’t get was an automatic calendar, which Steil said would allow “every member to have one bill each session guaranteed a committee vote.” Carone-Krebs and other lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed for the same thing a decade prior.

One of the current lawmakers who believes rule changes are in order is Rep. Pam DeLissio, a Democrat who represents parts of Montgomery County and Philadelphia.

“I’m hoping that the people who were elected this time around feel a compelling need for change, regardless of party affiliation,” DeLissio said.

January is coming soon

Time is not on the reformers’ side. Rules are adopted in January, which doesn’t give new members a lot of time to consider the proposal.

Any rule changes would have to be agreed to by a majority of the House. While the partisan divide will be smaller in January because of the election of 11 Democrats, Republicans will still have a significant advantage.

Steil is frank about how he and other lawmakers were able to make changes in 2007. He cast a vote for Philadelphia Republican Dennis O’Brien to become speaker in exchange for O’Brien’s promise he would create the commission.

Still, the reformers may find a friend in new House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, who a decade ago supported Steil’s idea to give each legislator the opportunity to have their bills actually heard in committee.

“It’s time to make these things happen,” Carone-Krebs said. “If nothing is ever tried, we’re going to be in the same situation.”

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