Pa. redistricting bill on its way to Senate

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, gets a hug from Lolly Bentch, the Department of Health's patient liaison for the state's medical marijuana program, before he speaks at a Capitol news conference to announce the launch of the program's patient and caregiver registry, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Harrisburg, Pa. Folmer was one of the architects of the 2016 law and Bentch helped lobby for it to help her daughter Anna. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

A Senate Bill that would update the current process of drawing congressional districts was headed to the Pennsylvania Senate floor for its first consideration Wednesday, May 23.

Senate Bill 22, proposed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County, was amended in the state government committee Tuesday, May 22, and passed unanimously. It will now be discussed in the Senate.

The bill had been sitting in the state government committee since last February. Originally, the bill would have changed the state's current six-legislator commission to an 11-person citizens' commission and more strictly require bipartisan support.

The committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Mike Folmer, representing parts of Lebanon, Dauphin and York counties, made small changes but received bipartisan support for its efforts.

The amendment: Unlike Boscola's original plan for a citizens' commission, which received support from the York County Commissioners in a resolution last month, the redistricting process would be left up to legislators.

More:York County commissioners join call for citizens redistricting commission

The commission would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents. Eight would be chosen by a leader from each party in both chambers and three would be chosen by the governor.

Seven votes would be required to approve a new congressional map. Therefore, bipartisan cooperation would be necessary to draw new district lines. 

Additionally, procedures limiting possible gerrymandering would come into play.

First, a county could not contain more Senate districts than the number required by the population plus one, and second, a county could not contain more representative districts than the population requires plus two.

However, this process wouldn't be set in stone.

If the commission were to fail to reach a consensus, the commission would recommend several maps to be made available online for public comment for 10 days. The General Assembly would then have to approve the final map with a two-thirds majority vote.

Although the proposed amendment deviates from the initial desires of Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to end partisan gerrymandering, the organization embraces the amendment, according to a Monday, May 21, news release.

"We believe the Folmer amendment is a fair compromise with the original proposal, addresses a variety of legislative concerns and is a vast improvement over the current system, which cuts the voters out of the process of drawing districts," the release stated.

Although it doesn't appeal to the York County Commissioners' initial plea for an independent citizens' commission, they share the organization's enthusiasm.

"I'd prefer there be citizen input, but it seems to be a more balanced approach," said Commissioner Chris Reilly, a Republican. "Given the partisanship at almost every level of government, it's a little refreshing to see what they're doing."

Commissioner Doug Hoke, the only Democratic commissioner, said, "It seems like they're making progress on the matter, which is good."

However, because of a lack of knowledge of the amendment to the bill, he declined to comment further.

The third commissioner, Susan Byrnes, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

In the House: Redistricting bills in the House haven't had as much luck.

In the last year, the House State Government Committee has gutted two Democrat-sponsored redistricting proposals that would create an 11-person citizens' commission.

Instead, the committee, chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, both times voted to amend the legislation to create a six-person commission, which would include one legislator from each chambers' caucuses and two from votes by the chambers in unison.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County.

Metcalfe made headlines for his vocal aversion to bills proposed by the other side of the political aisle after gutting the first proposal, saying he blocks "all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee."

More:House GOP alters a second proposal for independent redistricting commission

Democrats were peeved.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody wrote a letter to House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, requesting that Democratic bills would be sent to a different committee where they would see fair treatment.

"Now that (Rep. Metcalfe) freely admits what was always plain to see, I believe you, as Speaker of the House, should act to restore fairness for all House members, Democrats and Republicans alike," the Allegheny Democrat wrote. "Mr. Metcalfe's perversion of the legislative process must not be allowed to continue and you, Mr. Speaker, have the ability to fix it."

Dermody hoped to see Turzai address Metcalfe's vocal partisanship on the House floor last week. There was no such discussion.