Policy think tank: Folmer redistricting amendment 'far from desirable'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Marc Stier

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is urging the Senate to reject an amended bill aimed at changing the way the state draws congressional districts.

The state government committee unanimously passed an amendment to Senate Bill 22 Tuesday, May 22. The amendment calls for an 11-person citizens' commission to draw district lines: eight chosen by the majority and minority leaders of each chamber and three chosen by the governor.

More:Pa. redistricting bill on its way to Senate

The amendment also stripped constitutionally mandated criteria for the vetting process for commission members, leaving the details up to future legislation in the General Assembly.

The bill in its raw form, initially proposed by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County, would have created a similar 11-person commission. However, members would be chosen through a random process by the secretary of the commonwealth, nearly eliminating legislators' power in the process.

The "Folmer amendment," named after the committee's chairman, Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican who represents parts of Lebanon, Allegheny and York counties, pleased both redistricting reform organizations and York County commissioners.

But not everyone's happy.

More:York County commissioners join call for citizens redistricting commission

The opposition memo: Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning statewide policy research organization, wrote a memo denouncing the amendment Wednesday, May 30.

In the memo, Stier suggests that the amendment is "so far from desirable that we urge the full Senate to reject it and start over."

"The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a truly independent redistricting commission," he wrote. "The Folmer plan is a classic bait and switch, promising such a commission but not delivering on that promise."

Stier offered four reasons to kill the bill and start over.

First, he wrote, the commission wouldn't be truly independent. This is because the amendment itself doesn't contain language as to how members would be vetted, leaving the process up to legislation.

Legislators also would have too much power if they had the ability to choose commission members themselves, Stier argued.

"At best, this is likely to lead to congressional and state legislative redistricting plans that go too far in protecting incumbents," he wrote.

The third criteria attacks the amendment's "inability" to fully stop gerrymandering. 

Commission members could be selected to "benefit one party or another" because of a lack of vetting criteria, or a party could block the map within the commission with three members dissenting, leaving consideration up to the partisan-dominated General Assembly, Stier wrote.

Stier's final argument is that it's unclear what would happen if neither the commission members nor the Legislature could pass a map with the required seven-majority or two-thirds majority vote, respectively.

If the commission is unable to pass with seven votes with at least two votes from each party and two from independents, the General Assembly would need to pass a map by a two-thirds majority vote.

The amendment includes no language as to what would happen if the Legislature also failed to reach an agreement. These loopholes, Stier wrote, would provide a constitutional amendment that doesn't take enough strides toward true redistricting reform.

"Once we amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to change the process by which we draw legislative lines, we will likely be stuck with it for a long time," he wrote. 
"So, citizens of our state need to speak up strongly to demand that the Senate reject the Folmer version of SB 22 now."

The reaction to the memo: Proponents of the Folmer amendment don't disagree with Stier's criticism. What they do disagree with, though, is the desire to kill any bill that isn't perfect.

"The Budget and Policy Center is comparing this to the perfect idea of redistricting," said Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman of FairDistricts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to end partisan gerrymandering. "We say that we need to compare this to the current reality instead."

Fair Districts PA Chair Carol Kuniholm shows the evolution of the shape of Pennsylvania's 7th U.S. congressional district over the last 60 years. Monday, Feb. 27 (Photo: Jason Addy)

A constitutional amendment needs to pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions before making it on an election ballot for a voter referendum. With a looming July deadline to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot, taking action now is integral, she said.

"If we vote against this bill, the effort dies now," Kuniholm said. "We just have a few weeks left to get it on (the) 2020 ballot. This isn't the final say; there's work to be done and there are conversations to be had."

She emphasized that the state needs to "focus on what's politically possible in Pennsylvania" rather than be idealistic, because it's become clear that the Republican-dominated General Assembly won't pass a redistricting bill without having legislators choose commission members.

"It's shortsighted to say that unless we have a perfect bill we won't move forward," she said. "This conversation's not over. We are just trying to just keep it alive."

Although there are parts of the amendment that are vague, such as what would happen if the commission and Legislature both failed to implement a map with majority support, Kuniholm said "we can focus on implementing legislation once we make sure we can get a constitutional amendment on the ballot."

She added that her organization was "always aware" that it was unlikely, if not impossible, that the ideal vision of a citizens' redistricting commission would get implemented into law.

Folmer is on the same page.

Senator Mike Folmer speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"We've got to get this thing moving forward," Folmer said. "The matter is very time-sensitive, and right now we're focused on getting this through and ironing out details. We can't afford a hiccup." 

Still, Folmer understands the opposition to the amendment.

"I understand their fear about legislators picking commission members," he said. "But, if people don't trust legislators to help in the process, it's confusing as to why they want a totally independent commission to draw maps to elect people they don't trust."

Folmer said he studied the California-inspired citizens' redistricting commission, and after reading a ProPublica report analyzing the issues of the process, he became weary.

The 2011 ProPublica article revealed that despite having the commission members randomly selected, party members "enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests."

"A lot of people believed that California was the Mecca of redistricting," he said. "But it turns out a lot of people were misled in the state."

To Folmer, with his take on redistricting, the bill is in its "best form" to be passed in both chambers by the end of July. Further changes can be considered once the bill's spot on the 2020 ballot is reserved, he said.

"I'm trying to be as transparent and honest as possible with this bill," he said. "My plans have been criticized by members of both parties, and that's fine. I'm just trying to do the right thing."

The state government committee plans to update the bill further before it heads to the House, Folmer added. He declined to specify what the changes were.

The committee hopes to have the amended bill passed in the Senate by the second week of June. If passed, the following journey through the House might be more difficult.

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

In the past 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 legislator-heavy 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 be sent to a different committee.

"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.