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Deadlines loom as Pennsylvania House takes step toward new district maps

Reps. Seth Grove (R-York) and Scott Conklin (D-Centre) co-chair a meeting of the House State Government committee on Nov. 8, 2021.
Sam Dunklau
Reps. Seth Grove (R-York) and Scott Conklin (D-Centre) co-chair a meeting of the House State Government committee on Nov. 8, 2021.

A Pennsylvania state House committee made a set of party-line votes Monday regarding congressional redistricting, which the Republican chairman framed as needed to prepare for final negotiations over the maps.

The State Government Committee met for 20 minutes in the Capitol to approve amendments, bills and a resolution that were all unanimously favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

It approved a resolutionthat lawmakers who are involved in drawing new congressional maps will not adjust census numbers to allocate state prison inmates to their home areas , as the state legislative map-drawing body has chosen to do.

They also advanced a bill about new district lines, but the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Scott Conklin of Centre County, said the legislation was missing an actual map.

Conklin made the same objection to a second bill, which Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, described as a backup that might eventually be needed under the General Assembly's rules.

“I believe that if you’re going to vote on a map, you should actually have a map present,” Conklin said. “If not, it's nothing more than a shell game.”

The new congressional map must account for the loss of one seat, dropping the state's D.C. delegation from 18 to 17 starting with the 2022 races. Congressional redistricting is handled as legislation, requiring approval by both chambers and the governor.

The legislative maps, which cover the 203-person state House and 50-member state Senate, are being developed by the five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission. A preliminary map from the commission could surface at any time.

The parallel processes for Congress and the General Assembly are running up against deadlines designed to keep in place a schedule of public review, legal challenges and petition circulation periods with a goal of having a primary election on May 17.

“Any decision to move the primary would have to originate in the Legislature,” said Beth Rementer, press secretary for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. “That said, the governor believes that it is critical that next year’s primary be held on new maps, and believes the primary should be moved if necessary to ensure maps can be completed with appropriate transparency and opportunity for comment.”

The Department of State has said a May 17 primary means there's a Jan. 24 deadline to leave enough time for counties to prepare the documents needed for candidates to begin circulating nominating petitions on Feb. 15.

Carol Kuniholm, who chairs the advocacy group Fair Districts PA, said it may already be too late to keep the primary date intact. If not, “something's going to have to get shortened,” she said.

“I don't think it's possible to have it on May 17,” she said. “I do think it's possible to have it by early to mid June.”

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s chairman, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, said about a week ago that he may soon talk publicly about his group's timeline.

“Since we have no authority with respect to primary election deadlines, I have avoided discussing that topic and am simply focused on the work of the reapportionment commission,” he said in an email.

Continued delays could force lawmakers to decide whether to push back the primary, as occurred last year because of the pandemic, or consider running elections for another cycle on existing maps.

“I think at this point, all the pieces have to fall in place exactly right" to meet current deadlines, said County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania executive director Lisa Schaefer.

If legislative leaders want to prevent decisions being made by judges, “then do your jobs and produce the maps,” said David Thornburgh with the Philadelphia-based good government group the Committee of Seventy.

Thornburgh said getting the congressional maps done is more urgent than Legislative maps “because there’s no way we can reuse the current districts one more time. You can’t have 18 people running for 17 seats.”