Former allies split ways over redistricting fix
Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer and a Democratic colleague are again pushing for an independent citizens' redistricting commission, but they've already butt heads with a former supporter.
The Senate State Government Committee OK'd the proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday, April 9, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, and co-sponsored by the Republican representing parts of York County, by a 6-4 vote.
"This is the first step in a 1,000-mile journey," Folmer, who is the committee's chairman, said. "We're trying to keep this very important issue alive. We're trying to do the right thing here."
But the first step wasn't easy, as Fair Districts PA — an anti-gerrymandering nonprofit that last year mostly supported the legislation — voiced opposition and backed an entirely different proposal.
The senators' legislation fails to offer guidelines for how lawmakers would choose commissioners on the would-be redistricting commission. It also doesn't spell out eligibility requirements for commissioners. Fair Districts takes issue with both omissions.
"The selection process is incomplete," said Fair Districts Executive Director Carol Kuniholm, "There are no safeguards for the independence of the commission. We are not supportive of the bill as it is written."
The legislation would must also survive two consecutive legislative sessions and a referendum since it would amend the state Constitution. The measure doesn't require the new commission to actually form until July 2020, a display of a lack of urgency, said Kuniholm.
The one upside to the bill is that it passed the committee early in the year, which shows legislators are taking the matter seriously, she said.
Folmer said he's gathering a list of amendments and plans to address the group's concerns. Yet Fair Districts is already taking its political influence elsewhere with two Democratic companion bills in the House that were introduced Wednesday, April 10.
The first House bill, proposed by Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, would create a 11-member redistricting commission to draw just congressional lines, which wouldn't require a constitutional amendment. Members would be randomly selected from an approved list of candidates.
Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Montgomery, introduced a second bill — which would require a constitutional amendment — that would ideally use the already-established commission to also draw district lines for state legislative districts, therefore saving time.
The representatives and advocates hope this would streamline the process and give the state enough time to pass the bill during a second consecutive session and advertise it for the required three months before making it onto the primary election ballot as a referendum.
If that were to happen, the commission could be approved by state voters and prevent what advocates believe would be a gerrymandered decennial redistricting map in 2021.
Like the Senate bill, the commissions are made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and three individuals registered to neither party. But both of the House bills would have randomly-selected commissioners, something Folmer opposes.
Fair Districts sees the House package as addressing its complaints about the Senate legislation. But Folmer said the organization's concerns may end up being bad news for redistricting efforts.
"My fear is that all the arguments they're making are taking us backward and not forward," the Republican said.
Attempts to address the issue failed in both chambers after raucous debate in the last session.
In the Senate, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, put what many said was a poison pill in the bill with an amendment that also would've had judges elected in regional judicial districts rather than on a statewide basis.
The move prompted lawmakers to accuse him of hijacking the bill, and it was quickly laid to rest on the floor without any momentum to push it forward.
Further roadblocks have come up in previous House legislation. The former House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, was infamous for refusing to pass Democratic legislation and twice gutted redistricting bills.
But he's now out of the committee position, with Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, taking his spot.
Neither Aument nor Everett responded to inquiries for comment by deadline.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.