Reformers hope redistricting can open broader conversation on changing Harrisburg

Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, speaks at a Capitol rally Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Capitol-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

At their peak last year, Fair Districts PA’s neon green button-wearing members had convinced nearly 55 percent of the Pennsylvania House to sponsor a bill to create an independent citizens’ redistricting commission.

Now, with a clean slate in a new session, they’ve already convinced 86 lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — to sign on to one of their two bills to upend the backroom processes that currently decide how state legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Gerrymandering is the drawing of district maps for political gain — whether to protect current incumbents or to craft districts impervious to the opposite party. Political observers have blamed it for growing partisanship and dysfunctional government, both in Congress and in Harrisburg.

But while it may be about lines on a map, Pennsylvania activists and lawmakers are using the redistricting campaign as an opening to try and reform Harrisburg’s winner-take-all sensibilities that leave the majority running the show.

“The people in our group don’t want one party or the other to gain control,” Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, said after a Capitol rally Tuesday. “They think that’s toxic to the ability to collaborate, compromise, and gain solutions. It’s better when all sides can work together.”

For example, last year’s House redistricting bill counted more than half of the chamber’s members as co-sponsors. Yet the legislation never even received a hearing.

The power at play in drawing maps is clear just from the bills. Rep. Steve Samuelson’s proposal has the most support — and only changes the congressional redistricting process.

Since state legislative leaders use the power of the pen to keep members in line, Kuniholm said getting members to agree to change how state House and Senate maps are drawn could be harder.

To try and garner support, Kuniholm said she’s been taking a new tact with the Republican majority — pointing out the tough time they could have in 2021.

Under the state Constitution, the House and Senate maps are drawn by a five-member commission — the four chamber’s floor leaders and a chair, who cannot be an elected official, agreed on by the rest.

If the four leaders cannot agree, the state Supreme Court appoint someone. Come 2021, the court will likely still have a Democratic majority — giving the party the swing vote.

“Those legislators who have shut down Democratic bills for the last number of years might want to fix this before 2021,” Kuniholm said.

Her concern was echoed by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a moderate Republican from Bucks County with 20-plus years of experience in the House. Having spent time in the majority and the minority, he’s seen how quickly the balance of power can swing.

“It changes back and forth, and that’s why it should be an independent committee,” DiGirolamo said.

To try to build some bipartisan, rank-and-file support, Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia, also announced Tuesday she’s relaunching the Government Reform Caucus.

Formed in 2013, it was formerly chaired by now House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and had 40 members between the House and Senate. The caucus focused on good government reforms like a gift ban for members of the Legislature.

However, the group fell apart in 2016 because of redistricting, according to DeLissio.

Still, she wants to take another run at forming the group in an attempt to change how Harrisburg does business. Redistricting, rules reform, campaign finance changes, and another attempt at a gift ban could help open up the process.

“I’m going to be looking for anyone who’s had legislation pending for five to ten years,” DeLissio said, citing bills like a one to expand nurse practitioners’ authority.

Reform has already been put on the agenda. The state Senate has advanced a redistricting bill that Fair Districts strongly supported during last year’s session. But the group has since distanced itself from the bill, thinking it won’t be ready in time for the 2020 census.

Kuniholm and her legislative allies have instead put their hopes on two House bills that, by piggybacking off each other, could create a new system in time for the 2021 redistricting.

(If that sounds complicated, read our explainer on the issue here.)

Meanwhile, House State Government Committee Chairman Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, has been open to reform, but has said he’s focused on the congressional maps, not the state ones.

Cutler has also shown a reformer’s streak in the past, pushing for expanded lobbying disclosures. As leader, he’s expressed interest in redistricting reform, but said he’d like to wait on the Senate’s offer.

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