Lawmakers to take first steps toward new congressional map
HARRISBURG — A Republican-controlled state House committee planned to vote on a proposed map of Pennsylvania's new congressional districts that its chair introduced into legislation Wednesday, as a rival map was being prepared in the Senate where lawmakers promise an open process with debate and public comment.
House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said Wednesday the map he introduced into legislation was among 19 submitted to his committee.
Among other changes, it shifts the heavily Democratic city of Harrisburg out of a district with York now represented by Republican Rep. Scott Perry and into a sprawling central Pennsylvania district that includes the homes of Republican Reps. Fred Keller and John Joyce reaching all the way west to Altoona.
Democrats immediately criticized the process, saying the map was sprung on them and is being sent to a vote before the public can comment on it. And they swiftly criticized the map as heavily favoring Republicans.
Pennsylvania last year voted on a court-drawn map of districts, after the state Supreme Court threw out a map drawn and approved by Republicans in 2011 that became a national poster child for gerrymandering.
In next year’s election, Pennsylvania is losing a congressional seat, dropping from 18 to 17, to reflect population changes over the past decade reported by the U.S. Census that shows it growing more slowly than the rest of the nation. The delegation is currently split evenly, with nine Democrats and nine Republicans.
Grove said he did not expect lawmakers to adopt the map wholesale, but said introducing it is rather about putting forward a “citizen’s map.”
The map meets constitutional standards for equal population, limits splits of municipalities and offers compact and contiguous districts, Grove said.
It was drawn by Amanda Holt, a piano teacher and graphic artist who served on the Lehigh County board of commissioners as a Republican. In 2012, her alternative legislative redistricting plan helped persuade the state Supreme Court to order revisions after the 2010 Census.
Rep. Scott Conklin, the Democratic chair of the House State Government Committee, said testifiers in hearings have roundly said they want to be able to comment in public hearings on a map before it goes to a vote. Grove did not discuss his choice with Democrats before making it, Conklin said.
“There is nothing transparent about this process,” Conklin said.
In a statement, David Thornburgh, chair of Draw the Lines PA, a project of good government group Committee of Seventy, said the State Government Committee should publish an explanation of the drawing decisions that went into making the map and every district to help people make sense of it.
“We also would like the Legislature to allow more opportunities for the public to comment on the preliminary map,” Thornburgh said. "It is one thing to make a map public, it is another thing to take action based on public input."
The map legislation requires approval by majorities in both houses of the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf before it can take effect.
The Republican and Democratic chairs of the Senate State Government Committee plan to introduce a map in the coming days, with committee and floor votes expected in January after a public comment period.
However, the map will not necessarily have support from Senate or House leaders or Wolf when it is introduced, said Senate State Government Committee Chairman David Argall, R-Schuylkill.
“We’ve got a lot of boxes to check,” Argall said.
In any case, Argall said he expects a lot of different ideas in the House and Senate, public comment and public hearings in the coming weeks.
Any final product could be the subject of a court challenge.
If Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature deadlock on drawing a map, the state Supreme Court may again end up performing the task.
Time is tight, with candidates allowed to begin collecting voter signatures Feb. 15 to get on the ballot. The primary is May 17.
Holt's map keeps major features of the existing districts intact, such as maintaining a Bucks County-based seat, a Lehigh Valley-based seat and two Philadelphia-based seats, and largely gives incumbents a district of their own.
It keeps Scranton and Wilkes-Barre together, barely, in a northeastern Pennsylvania district now represented by Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, but adds heavily conservative areas in northern Pennsylvania.
It squeezes four districts that cover a large swath of rural northern and central Pennsylvania down to three, and drags a Chester County-based district held by Democrat Chrissy Houlahan in suburban Philadelphia into conservative Lebanon County.