Does Pennsylvania have too many state legislators? That’s what Brian O’Neill, columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, believes. He has been advocating shrinking the legislature since 1994. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with O’Neill to discuss the idea and how to make it a reality.
Ohio, for example, has 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, but operates with only 52 percent of the state legislators. According to O’Neill even more populous states have smaller legislatures. New York and Texas both operate with 150 legislators, Florida has 120, and California, the most populous state, has only 90.
“We have more full time state legislators than anyone in the Union,” O’Neill said. “There’s nobody really close and if they were doing their jobs well, if this set up was working well, I might not feel this way, but they don’t seem to be able to do budgets on time.”
O’Neill criticized state lawmakers for taking a long time to pass anything. He pointed out that the reason the state has such a large legislature is due to a law passed in the 19th century trying to prevent corruption, which he says has not worked out well and only made law making a slower process.
“Right now, that State House in particular is like high school,” he said. “There are all these cliques, they don’t get a lot done, they’re all screaming at each other, and there have been several legislative leaders over the years, as they head out the doors, say that, yeah, the size of the place makes it hard to get anything done.”
The size of the legislature comes at a hefty cost to Pennsylvania tax-payers. According to O’Neill it costs over $1 million per lawmaker, covering things like travel, staff, and pensions.
Luckily, progress has been made. While it would require a state amendment to reduce its size, a bill seeking to reduce the legislature from 203 to 151 has passed both the House and the Senate. O’Neill says now the bill will just have to pass again the next time the legislature is in session in 2017, and then it will be up to the people of Pennsylvania to vote on it, a vote he says will pass overwhelmingly.
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