Lawmakers are coming back to Harrisburg this week, and are already setting priorities for the second half of their two-year legislative session.
One of those priorities has been in the works for many years: overhauling the commonwealth’s redistricting laws.
Debate on the issue has moved in fits and starts for years. Many pro-reform lawmakers say they want an independent citizens’ commission to draw the lines, but they frequently differ on details.
Right now, Pennsylvania’s legislature draws the congressional districts, and the governor signs off on them. State House and Senate districts are drawn by a panel of legislative leaders, plus a fifth outside member who is often appointed by the state Supreme Court.
Critics say there’s too much incentive for partisan legislators to draw district lines that protect their allies.
Representative Steve Samuelson, a Northampton County Democrat, is one of the leaders of the bipartisan group supporting an independent commission.
“We need a redistricting process where the legislators are out of the room,” he said. "We need an independent citizen’s group drawing the lines in Pennsylvania. I believe you get better districts, fairer districts.”
Samuelson is sponsoring a bill that would create an 11-person commission tasked with drawing congressional lines. As the measure is currently written, the commission’s members would be randomly selected to represent Republicans, Democrats, Independents and members of third parties.
Representative Tom Murt, a Republican who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, is sponsoring a companion bill that would apply to state House and Senate districts.
Murt’s bill is an amendment to the state constitution, meaning it would need to pass both chambers twice, in consecutive sessions, without changes to its language, and then be approved by voters in a statewide referendum.
That puts lawmakers on a tight timeline.
The way Samuelson sees it, the House and Senate would need to pass both bills by early August. That would put the amendment process in motion for Murt’s bill, plus Governor Tom Wolf would be able to sign Samuelson’s into law and get a citizen’s commission for congressional reapportionment up and running this year.
Then, Samuelson said, once the next legislative session starts in January 2021, they’ll be able to quickly pass Murt’s amendment a second time, put it to voters for a referendum, and add state legislative redistricting to the independent commission’s task list in time for 2021’s reapportionment.
Lycoming County Republican Garth Everett chairs the House committee that the redistricting bills would have to get through. He said he’s open to considering them — but isn’t sure how GOP leaders feel.
“I’m not anxious to do a heavy lift in committee only to discover that the lift was for nothing because it’s never going to see the light of day on the floor,” he said.
He added, he’s less committed than Samuelson to pushing the bills through their many legislative hurdles in time for reapportionment in 2021.
“It’s very difficult to rush our process,” he said. “I think what our goal should be…at this point is to get the statutory changes in place.”
On the other side of the Capitol, Senators who support changing the redistricting process are having similar conversations.
The chamber has had mixed success with redistricting legislation in the past. Last session, it passed a compromise bill that would have had the legislature and governor appoint a map-drawing commission. It also would have elected judges by district—a late-in-the-game amendment that outraged Democrats.
The measure failed to pass the House.
This session, the Democrat and Republican leading the Senate’s redistricting effort — Lehigh County’s Lisa Boscola and Chester County’s Tom Killion — have opted to start their bills from scratch, re-introducing memos that mirror the House legislation.
This story was updated at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 14, 2020.