Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Reducing the size of the Pennsylvania Legislature raises interesting questions in these difficult economic times

Reducing the size of the Pennsylvania Legislature raises interesting questions in these difficult economic times. This year, legislators are more than two months behind schedule on their most important job of the year -- adopting a budget. In all of their futile attempts, the main topic of conversation has been cutting programs and services.

Are Pennsylvania's lawmakers ready to even consider an idea that could cost them their job?

Whenever changing the size of legislatures is considered, debate usually focuses on three major themes: representation, efficiency and cost. Those who like larger legislatures argue that the more members, the fewer the constituents per district. With fewer constituents a lawmaker is more likely to have face-to-face dealings with them. Proponents also argue that the oversight of administrative agencies is greater among larger legislatures and there is a more effective division of labor and specialization.

Supporters of smaller legislatures correctly argue that larger legislatures obviously cost more. They also argue that fewer legislators does not mean less responsive legislators. Using modern communications, a lawmaker can easily reach, and be reached by, many more constituents.

Nonetheless, it has long been true that Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature among the 50 states, so the results of a new report on legislative staffers is no surprise.

That is, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Pennsylvania has 2,919 legislative staffers to support the work of its 253 legislators. Just two years ago, New York was ahead but now it has 168 fewer staffers than Pennsylvania. Third-place California is behind us by 813 legislative employees, despite its significantly larger population.

The conference of legislatures, which tallied the number of staffers, is the same organization that last year reported Pennsylvania also was first in the percentage of its state budget that is spent on its legislature.

But, debate about reducing the size of legislatures, is not something that happens rarely; in some states it happens regularly. In Pennsylvania the idea generates conversations but no one has done anything.

Although some members last year proposed cutting the size of the Pennsylvania state house from 203 to 161 members and the state Senate from 50 to 40, that went the way of similar, failed efforts.

Changing the size of one or both chambers of a legislature (in other states) for reasons other than population changes last occurred in 2003.

The New York Senate increased its size from 61 to 62; the North Dakota Senate decreased its size from 49 to 47, and its House from 98 to 94.

In Rhode Island, voters passed a constitutional amendment reducing the Senate from 50 to 38 members and the House from 75 to 50, but all lawmakers' salaries increased.

In these difficult economic times the only talk of cutting Pennsylvania's $332-million-a-year Legislature is coming from frustrated citizens, some public-interest groups and Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill.