Hope in Harrisburg, maybe

By Dick Miller

WE.CONNECT.DOTS: There is hope for better governance in Pennsylvania, but improvement cannot happen until the next decade.

We are better than halfway through the current decade and power has flowed to the Republican leadership beyond due by voter registration.

Through a redistricting process known as “Gerrymandering” many more lawmaker seats are held by Republicans than justified.

Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a million voter registrations. However, Republicans hold 13 of the 18 PA Congressional seats. The margins of GOP superiority in both chambers of the state legislature are the largest since the Eisenhower days.

Nothing happens in Harrisburg these days not approved by Republican legislative leadership. Democrat governor Tom Wolf is judged by many as ineffective. His low approval ratings reflect scarcity of results.

That might change after the next census because of an election for Supreme Court judges in 2015. Democrats won all three seats to move to a 5-2 margin on the court of last (state) resort. One of the two Republicans must defend her seat this year. Sallie Mundy, was appointed to fill a vacancy last year by Wolf, but must win an election in 2017 to remain there.

While judges claim to drop their partisanship when they don robes, court rulings indicate otherwise. A good example is the redrawing of legislative district boundaries after the last census.

By existing law, a five-member commission draws the maps. The first four slots go to the Democrat and Republican leaders in the PA Senate and House of Representatives. They never agree on the fifth member. That selection then falls to the state supreme court.

In 2012, the supreme court was in Republican hands. No one seemed surprised when the fifth redistricting commission member voted with the two Republicans on every issue.

Appeals filed against commission decisions were resolved by – you guessed it – the state supreme court. Always in favor of maps creating more Republican districts than justified by their registration.

The only way this series of events is not repeated, this time favorable to the Democrats, is if there is an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment would create a more independent redistricting commission.

A bill was introduced in the Senate this past week, proposing an 11-member commission and the methods to fill these appointments. The legislature must pass some version of this bill in the 2017-18 session and again in the 2019-20 session.

Finally, voters must approve the amendment no later than 2020.
If this schedule is not met, the existing method will prevail for the next decade.

For once, the Republicans are in a bind. Because they control both legislative chambers by wide margins they are responsible for the amendment structure. For once, the GOP must provide some degree of fairness in this important governance issue.

When they fail to come up with an amendment proposal that is acceptable to a majority of the voters in 2020, they can be dialed out of business in the next decade. If the amendment fails, the redistricting process continues as it has been, this time, likely, with boundary lines favoring Democrats.

Bottom Line: This scenario has only become known recently, even though it was evident at the election of 2015 when Democrats swept all three seats on the Supreme Court.

Reform is now being promoted by the state League of Women Voters. LOWV has started an offshoot advocacy movement entitled “FairDistrictsPA.com.” Fair Districts shares office space with the state LOWV in Harrisburg.

Tony Crocamo travels the state spreading the word about “Fair Districts.” A decorated Vietnam veteran, he is a semi-retired corporate trainer, former journalist and head of marketing for Buchart Horn, a premier state-based engineering firm.

No one claims these changes are easy to develop. Pennsylvania is a non-referendum state. The Governor and legislature must initiate all reforms. In many other states (Ohio and California most notable), voters can petition to put an issue on the ballot regardless of favor by the state government.

For example, some uses of marijuana – while continuing to be technically illegal by the Federal government – have been adopted in some states by public referendums. In Pennsylvania, legislators had to agree on a process also approved by the governor. This took several years.

For LOWV this project moves the group back into relevance in the political area. At one time the group was prominent and politicians paid attention to issues of concern to their members.

Today, LOWV suffers from lack of fresh blood, like many other organizations of yesterday. Millennials just don’t like meetings.

We still may not see the fairest manner of reapportioning legislative districts. That depends on Democratic legislative leadership. In recent years, they have been known to screw up one-car funerals and free lunches.

Updated: February 20, 2017 — 6:16 pm
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