Shrinking Legislature Won’t Solve Our Problem

Once again, proposals are circulating to reduce the number of Representatives and Senators elected to the General Assembly. This time around the Senate bill being also debated makes reductions to the state judiciary and eliminates the position of Lieutenant Governor. Last year the state House passed legislation reducing the number of Representatives. Because both chambers have shown at least some interest in that "reform", it is important to reiterate why reducing the size of the General Assembly is misguided.

One of the primary arguments for a reduction in the size of the legislature is it would create a cost reduction. While true, it bears considering if this would be the most effective way to save taxpayer’s money. If the General Assembly were to shrink by 25 percent, the savings taxpayers realized based on having to pay fewer salaries for Representatives and Senators would vanish is less than ten years. Every year members of the General Assembly receive a "cost of living adjustment" (COLA) that averages roughly three percent.

Further undermining the cost argument is that fact that members of the General Assembly pay virtually nothing for a gold-plated health insurance package. At present, members of the House and Senate pay only 1 percent of their salary or roughly $840 per year to offset the cost of their premium. The average employee pays 7 percent of salary towards their premium; in this case a difference of more than $5000 per year. If members of the General Assembly paid 7 percent of their salary toward their insurance premiums, taxpayers would save over $1 million in the first year. The final problem with the reduction in cost argument is that it ignores that the primary cost for operating the General Assembly is not the members. Rather the real expense comes from the staff. Pennsylvania’s General Assembly employs over 2900 staff members.

If the General Assembly wanted to reduce costs, they could start by cutting their own salaries, paying their "fair share" for health insurance benefits and substantially reducing the number of staffers. An even better option would be for the General Assembly to return to part-time status and get real jobs. The state of Texas, which is consistently ranked as the best state in the country as a place to do business, pays lawmakers less than $8,000 per year or one-tenth of what we pay in Pennsylvania. Paying lawmakers less would also change the character of the individuals who seek office.

As Ben Franklin wisely noted and the corruption of Pennsylvania’s political class continues to prove, when elected officials make a handsome living they will move heaven and earth to keep from losing their positions of power. The reduction in the size of the General Assembly would actually consolidate power in the hands of fewer men and women. Furthermore, it would increase the costs of being elected to office. As candidates have to reach a larger group of potential constituents, the cost of getting their message out increases. Where will candidates get that money? What mountains will candidates move to get it?

One final argument against reducing the size of the General Assembly is built into a basic limited government principle: the closer an elected official is to their constituents the better they are able to represent their interests. Put another way, the fewer people someone represents, the more he or she is responsive to their views on issues. Decreasing the size of the legislature would out of necessity increase the size of a legislator’s constituency. How would that impact a legislator’s responsiveness? If you want to be treated more like a number, than a person by your Representative or Senator increasing the number of people they have to please is a good way to make that happen.

A structural change to the size of the General Assembly may sound good on the surface, but digging deeper reveals a laundry list of problems. The people of Pennsylvania deserve genuine legislative reforms. Without those reforms, discussions on reducing the size of the legislature are little more than window dressing.