State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Despite concerns, full Senate to consider shrinking government

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jun 9, 2014 6:34 PM
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A proposed constitutional amendment to slice and dice all branches of state government was sent to the full Senate Monday for a vote, despite lingering concerns voiced by members from either side of the aisle.

The measure in question would reduce the Senate by five senators, cut six judgeships from the state appellate courts (two from Supreme Court, four from Superior Court), and eliminate the office of the lieutenant governor.

Debate on the measure went on for almost an hour in a Senate Appropriations meeting, with comments almost exclusively on the newest language targeting the judiciary and executive branches.

"I've heard no discussion"

Several lawmakers worried aloud that shallower court benches could leave remaining justices with an impossibly large workload.

"I've yet to see a study saying this is the best way to go for Pennsylvania or any state, and until I see that, I'm not going to buy into it," said Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery). He was one of a few Republicans who voted to send the bill out of committee, but promised a 'no' vote on the floor if his concerns weren't addressed.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa voiced discomfort at the idea that without a lieutenant governor, the next link in the succession of power after governor would be the Senate president pro tempore, who doesn't run in a statewide election.

Others said the newer elements to the proposal caught them off-guard. While there have been numerous hearings over the past few years on reducing the size of the state legislature, no one can remember hearings on shrinking the judiciary or executive branches.

"I've heard no discussion on the judges whatsoever," said Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny). "I've been here since '07. I've heard no discussion about Superior judges, or Supreme Court."

"I don't think this is necessarily ready for prime-time," said Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks).

Recent changes

Originally, the proposal only reduced the size of the Senate.

Language targeting the judiciary and office of lieutenant governor was added last week by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati. He represents several rural counties and opposed shedding any Senate seats, saying the result would be larger districts and more power concentrated in urban areas. He proposed the additional cuts, he said, to distribute the pain across all branches of state government.

"Let's put it to the voters," said Scarnati. "Let them have the discussion."

Advancing the proposal in the Senate doesn't fast-track it for implementation, as Scarnati and others have pointed out. A proposed constitutional amendment requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then must clear a voter referendum. A Senate GOP spokesman said if the issue makes it to a referendum, voters will be able to address cuts to the various entities separately.

The reform that didn't make the cut

Before the Senate Appropriations Committee voted on the government-reduction measure, Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) tried to add an amendment to overhaul the once-a-decade process of redrawing the boundaries of state House and Senate districts.

"This would basically reform the manner in which we do redistricting and not allow legislators to draw their own lines," said Blake.

The Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester) asked for -- and received -- a negative vote.

"The subject is important enough," Pileggi said, "that it should not be addressed with an amendment that has not received a hearing or a discussion."

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