Smith: Bill would not hurt rural districts

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Will reducing the number of legislators in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives actually help to streamline the legislative process?

That’s what state House Speaker Sam Smith, of Punxsutawney, believes, as he has introduced a bill to begin the lengthy process required to reduce the size of the 203-member chamber by about 25 percent.

Wednesday, Smith said many rural residents have expressed some fears that they could lose their importance if the size of their legislative districts is increased. But he said he didn’t believe that reducing the number of legislators would hurt the rural voice any more than when the House eliminated its county-based seat structure in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated that every state lawmaker represent roughly the same number of constituents. 

“To those that say this will take away the rural voice, I would suggest that began with the court ruling in the 1960s, since prior to that ruling, every rural county had one legislator,” Smith said.”It has continued due to suburban growth into traditional rural areas like Butler and Westmoreland counties.”

The House can operate more efficiently with fewer members, just in building a consensus and understanding what other members’ views are, Smith said.

“We all are elected to Harrisburg, and we’re expected to be an advocate for our district on the front end,” he said, adding that at some point, elected officials still must govern.

“I came to this conclusion in the last three or four years as a floor leader,” Smith said. “There are so many opinions that we have to work through, that it makes it difficult to find where the consensus is on many issues.”

The measure requires a constitutional amendment, so it would have to pass both chambers in two successive legislative sessions and then be approved by Pennsylvania voters.

Smith’s proposal would reduce the House to 153 members, but as normal legislation, it is subject to amendment and could change. Fifty-nine co-sponsors are on board so far.

Smith said he wouldn’t do anything to weaken the voice of his constituents in the 66th District and other rural areas.

Speaking as the representative of a rural district, Smith said he has completed a task that is not easily achieved: First being elected as a caucus leader, and then as a statewide House leader.

“It shows that we do have a voice, and I don’t think that would change because the districts would still be proportional,” he said.

Reducing the House to 153 members would put the 66th District more into the middle of the pack, Smith said.

At 203 House members, Pennsylvania is the third largest legislature in the United States.

Smith plans to seek summer hearings on his proposal, a vote this fall, and then, the Senate could vote on it a year from now.

If the bill passes both the House and the Senate, it must be published as a public notice.

Smith said the bill would have to pass the House and Senate once, and then pass the legislature again in the next session two years from now. If it passes the legislature twice, then it goes to a voter referendum.

“At the end of the day, for it to go into effect, it would have to be approved by the voters to amend the constitution and approved in a referendum through a popular vote,” Smith said. “It’s a long process, and it’s ultimately up to the voters whether they want the change or not.”