Another Look at Downsizing the State Legislature

Member Group : Susquehanna Valley Center

In our form of democracy, good ideas are discussed over and over across the
years with little evidence of progress. Hearings to reduce the size of the
state legislature were held before the Senate State Government Committee on
April 30, 2010 as well as the State Government Committee on August 19, 2008,
January 17, 2006, and on August 9, 2011.

However, perhaps progress is starting. On January 23, 2012 the House State
Government Committee voted to cut the size of the state House of
Representatives from 203 seats to 153. It was the first time any bill to cut
the size of the Legislature received a positive vote at any level.

A reduction in the number of seats in the state legislature has been a reform
that has seen some stirrings in recent years. According to the National
Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), proposals to reduce the number of
legislative seats in at least one chamber have been set forth in Connecticut,
Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, and Nebraska in addition to Pennsylvania. Indeed,
over 30 years ago, Illinois and Massachusetts approved significant reductions
in their state legislatures. In 2002, Rhode Island reduced the number of seats
in its state legislature by one-quarter, eight years after state voters first
approved of the move. In Illinois, the House reduced its membership from 177
to 118 in 1980. After legislative reapportionments in 1991 and 2001, North
Dakota reduced its number of legislative districts as well.

As I presented in THE REFORM OF STATE LEGISLATURES: The Changing Character of
Representation in 1992, the large size of the legislature and the failure to
amend the state Constitution to reduce it has brought forth some criticism,
from organizations such as Common Cause to the League of Women Voters. Critics
of the legislature cite a lack of decorum, frequent periods of confusion during
session, the difficulty in organizing majorities to move legislation, and the
necessity to reconcile various interests as the most common complaints.

A 1968 Constitutional Convention failed to reduce the size of the legislature,
and subsequent ad hoc efforts from within the legislature have also resulted in
failure. Even the reformers have not been able to reach a consensus on an
ideal size. A majority of members of the Commission on Legislative
Modernization concluded that Pennsylvania’s economic, social, religious,
political, and ethnic diversity required a large legislature. Two years later,
however, the Citizens’ Conference on State Legislatures, a private nonpartisan
research organization, called attention to the size of Pennsylvania’s House,
terming it one of the General Assembly’s "most pressing problems." In fact,
the Citizens’ Conference recommended that no lower chamber exceed 150 members.

A reduction in size of the General Assembly, or the House of Representatives,
could have beneficial effects for the finances of the Commonwealth since the
cost of operating the General Assembly has risen to approximately $300 million
from a cost of $148.4 million in 1989-90 and $88.4 million in 1984-85. One
must note, however, that a simple reduction in the number of legislators in the
General Assembly will not automatically result in a proportionate reduction in
either the direct or indirect costs of the General Assembly. While one would
expect that a reduction in the number of members of the General Assembly would
generate a reduction in the total costs of the legislature, such a reduction in
membership would not automatically result in reductions in member
salary/benefits, staff complement, or the size of legislative accounts.
Notably, this has been Rhode Island’s experience after its downsizing of its
state legislature.

Whether the Commonwealth’s costs would be diminished or not, however, is only
one of the concerns that should be considered in this discussion. The foremost
concern of all possible reform measures for the General Assembly is the issue
of efficacy. Will the legislature be more or less effective than it has been
before? I believe that a reduction in size would contribute to improving the
effectiveness of the legislature by reducing the concentration of power that
has been seen in the General Assembly for generations. A smaller legislature
will probably make members more independent of Caucus leadership. Legislators
will have to appeal to a larger group of constituents with a larger district
and more constituents to serve than previously. Hence, a downsizing should
also improve the legislature’s transparency.

When one considers the issues of legislative efficacy and transparency,
however, one finds that rather than simply downsizing the General Assembly, it
may be useful to couple this reform with several others that have been
discussed over the years. Some of these reforms include the following:

1) Return to a citizen legislature through the adoption of limited legislative
sessions. Parkinson’s Law will continue to run the life of the legislature,
and all major business will continue to be conducted. A citizen legislature
would also be fostered by a reduction in legislative pay and benefits to bring
it in line with the average, private sector state-wide salary and benefit

2) Term limits, I have written extensively about this concept during the early
1990s. If term limits cannot be adopted, NOTA, None-of-the-Above, would be a
worthy replacement.

3) Improve the availability of state budgetary information.

4) Initiative, referendum, and recall, all items that Governor Ridge promised
would be a focal point of his Administration during his very first press
conference outside of Hershey when he announced his bid for Governor.

5) Question Period, the introduction of a Question Period for the Governor
before the combined General Assembly, once a month for 90 minutes, would
dramatically increase public knowledge of state issues and would strengthen
accountability between the Executive and Legislative branches of Pennsylvania

Dr. Charles E. Greenawalt II, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow for The Susquehanna
Valley Center

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the
passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.


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