‘We want to fix Harrisburg’: Reformers summit seeks solutions to state government’s woes
The event, sponsored by Fair Districts PA and the League of Women Voters of Pa., kicks off Saturday
Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, speaks at a Capitol rally Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Capitol-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
About 130 people are expected to attend this weekend’s conference in Harrisburg entitled Reclaiming Our Democracy: Redistricting, Rule and Representation sponsored by Fair Districts PA and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania., It’s the first such gathering in three years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fair Districts PA was founded in 2016 by the League, Common Cause PA, Committee of Seventy, Pennsylvania Council of Churches and others concerned about gerrymandering and accountable government, its co-founder and chair Carol Kuniholm, told the Capital-Star.
Evolving from a handful of volunteers, today’s effort represents “a network of local groups and regional support teams in every corner of the state,” Kuniholm said.
She previously served six years as the League’s Vice President of Government and Social Policy. Her experience as a youth pastor in a poor, urban Philadelphia neighborhood “put her on a path to understanding and addressing inequitable policies in Pennsylvania,” according to the organization’s website.
At a time of deep partisan division, Kuniholm said she’s careful to define her organization.
“We don’t define ourselves as progressive. We are nonpartisan and stick to the nonpartisan label,” she stressed.
Kuniholm said she wants Pennsylvanians to know that her organization’s work is not funded by, as are many Progressive groups, by the Action Network, a once-removed Democrat effort to stimulate participation in electoral politics. “No, we’re not funded by that entity. We have not taken any kind of partisan money. Our funding comes from small donor people in Pennsylvania,” she told the Capital-Star.
Regarding the conference title and the Keystone State’s current circumstances, Kuniholm said she advises others to think about needed reforms as they relate to redistricting, the rules used by the state Legislature to conduct its business, and) and how perennial, systemic flaws in Pennsylvania’s legislator-written rules undermine effective representation.
“When legislative leaders manipulate district boundaries to keep themselves in office or to silence their opposition, we all lose,” she said. Further she noted, “Whichever party has control of the legislature has control of redistricting. We’re advocating for a fair and transparent redistricting process that includes public input.”
“It’s not complicated,” Kuniholm said . “The redistricting process needs to be ‘transparent’ with citizens participating in the process. All the closed-door dealmaking ends,” said.
Political observers long have noted the gerrymandered boundaries of state House and Senate to advantage the big two political parties..
Kuniholm has called for “clear standards against dividing counties and municipalities more than necessary. This is the only way we’re going to have responsive districts truly reflecting the will of the voters.”
Holding a legislative majority doesn’t even break the logjam, according to Kuniholm.
“Even for the majority party only 7 percent to 8 percent of bills introduced in Pennsylvania get passed,” she explained, pointing out that “there are legislators who’ve been in office for years who never had a bill passed.”
The consensus is that “if you’re a new member, the likelihood of getting a bill passed in your first session is pretty much zero. Even established members find they “never get a bill past committee chairs or members who’ve been there longer,” she said.
“About half the bills that originate in the state Senate “don’t even get assigned to an oversight committee. About half the Senate bills don’t even get a vote in the state House,” Kuniholm said.
That even covers bills introduced by leadership in the respective chambers, she added.
“They just ‘say no’ to each other. That’s no way to govern. It does not provide the type of representation citizens need.” Kuniholm said.
“It’s extremely dysfunctional, ineffective and expensive. We have a large, full-time Legislature,” Kuniholm added . Even so, less than 1 in 5 bills that are introduced during the two-year legislative session are ever considered in committee, she said.
Pennsylvania’s partisan redistricting process has hit roadblocks due to legislative rules that shut out real representation, she argued.
“Just a few legislative leaders, mostly from very safe, one-party districts, control the agenda and block bipartisan solutions that would benefit the people of Pennsylvania. That’s why we want to fix Harrisburg,” she said.
“We have been asking the General Assembly for fair redistricting for years. We have worked to build strong support in cities and rural areas, from city governments and school boards, with scores of legislators no matter their party, and still have not made progress in changing our laws or constitution for lasting change to redistricting,” Kuniholm concluded.
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