Pennsylvania Takes Step Toward Smaller Legislature

When it approved HB 153 last week, no one could accuse the Pennsylvania House of Representatives of acting in its own cynical self-interest. The constitutional amendment would reduce the House from 203 members to 153 members and the Senate from 50 to 38, sending legislators to unemployment lines. In doing so, proponents argue it would make the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which has long been one of the nation's priciest legislatures, somewhat less expensive.

By voting for the change, the House sided with proponents who said that a smaller legislature would not only be cheaper, but also more efficient. It went against opponents who said that, with thousands of additional constituents each, lawmakers would have a harder time providing good representation. 

“You do have email. You do have social media. A lot of members use Twitter and Facebook,” says Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith, who sponsored the change. “If somebody really has a problem, they know how to reach their legislator.”

The amendment still has a long way to go before it becomes law. It must pass the Senate, then pass the House and Senate again in a subsequent session and then be approved by voters. It still wouldn't go into effect until 2022. If that were to happen, the change would be the most substantial reduction in the size of a state legislature in decades. In the last major change, Rhode Island cut 38 seats a decade ago.

Among legislatures, Pennsylvania is an outlier. Many of the largest legislatures, such as New Hampshire's and Georgia's, meet only part of the year and provide members with relatively little compensation. With 253 members, the Pennsylvania General Assembly trails only New Hampshire in size. But, at $82,026 annually, it also has the second-highest legislative salaries after California, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Those salaries are one of the reasons Pennsylvania spends about $300 million a year on its legislature or about half-a-percent of the total cost of state government, according to Census data compiled by NCSL. It spends the second-most per capita of any legislature, behind only Alaska.

What's not clear is how far a smaller legislature would really go to reducing legislative costs. Even with its relatively high salaries and large size, most of the costs of the Pennsylvania legislature aren't for members themselves. Instead, they're for staff. Miskin says the amendment would cut costs by at least $5 million a year, but it could be more, depending on how the reductions affect staffing levels. Right now, that's unclear.

If Pennsylvania were to scale back its legislative staff, it would continue a trend that's been going on around the country for years. The last time NCSL counted in 2009, there were 34,110 legislative staff nationwide, down from 35,884 in 1996. Pennsylvania had the most at 2,919. Brian Weberg, director of NCSL's Legislative Management Program, says that trend has likely continued since then. “Legislative staff have borne the brunt of this recession," Weberg says, "just like all state workers.”

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