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Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Senate to consider smaller government across all branches

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Jun 3, 2014 4:21 PM
Thumbnail image for Harrisburg Capitol building with fountain

Fewer legislators, fewer judges, and no lieutenant governor - that's the vision approved by a state Senate committee this week.

Proposed constitutional amendments to shrink the size of government across the three branches have been sent to the full Senate for consideration. Under the measures, the House would go from 203 to 153 members, the Senate would lose five seats, and justice positions would be eliminated -- the state Superior Court would be capped at 11, instead of its current 15, and the Supreme Court bench would shrink from seven to five. The lieutenant governor would also get the ax.

Cutting the size of the General Assembly has been debated for a few years. The language to make cuts to the judiciary and executive branches was added by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati.

"It isn't just the General Assembly that spends the money," said Scarnati (R-Jefferson). "It's not just the General Assembly that's too large. We can do better across all branches of government."

Members of the Senate State Government Committee commended the broadened scope of the pending constitutional changes to the executive and judiciary branches.

"Makes sense to me," said Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester). "I've never understood why you needed such a large Superior Court, anyway."

Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) endorsed the move to get rid of the lieutenant governor position, created in 1873 to preside over the Senate and break any ties among the 50 members. Other responsibilities, Corman pointed out, come largely "at the whim of the governor."

"If the governor likes the lieutenant governor, they can do a lot -- I think as this lieutenant governor does," Corman said. And if the governor doesn't care for his independently elected lieutenant? "As history has shown, they don't do a lot."

But legislative seats seemed to be not so dispensable to several senators, some of whom raised the possibility that a smaller General Assembly would leave power concentrated in the state's more populous areas.

"Understand, we are making the southeastern Pennsylvania a stronger voting bloc," said Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks).

Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) doubted reducing the legislature would result in major cost savings.

"I believe there's going to be more staff and even down the road probably more district offices may be needed," Folmer said. "Some people confuse downsizing the legislature with limited government. Remember, the smallest government out there is a dictatorship and I don't know how limited that is."

Both reduction measures passed unanimously out of committee (one bill addressed the House, the other addressed the Senate, judiciary, and lieutenant governor). Senators said their concerns could be debated without slowing down the lengthy process ahead. Constitutional amendment must first pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then clear a voter referendum.

"Let the debate begin," said Dinniman. "Even if we pass it, we have the debate again next year."

Correction: This post has been edited to reflect the total number of judicial positions proposed to be eliminated is at least six, not four, as originally reported.

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