With a workforce of 253 elected officials, it’s rare that the Pennsylvania General Assembly is ever operating at full capacity.
There have been six special elections for vacant seats in the state House and Senate in 2019, the result of elected officials retiring or resigning before their terms expired.
The most recent vacancy arose in September, when now-ex. Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, announced his resignation in the wake of child pornography charges.
Folmer’s departure left constituents in central Pennsylvania’s 48th District — which includes all of Lebanon and parts of Dauphin and York counties — without a voice in the state Senate, at least until they choose a new senator in a special election slated for Jan. 14.
But according to experts, lawmakers, and legislative staffers, the impact of a single resignation isn’t widely felt by the general public.
“A lot of constituents don’t follow the daily lives and the work schedules of lawmakers,” said Terry Madonna, a veteran pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster and a political commentator. “It’s just not something average people do.”
If a state lawmaker leaves office unexpectedly, whether mired in scandal or for benign personal reasons, “the average constituent … may not even be aware” they’re gone, Madonna said.
Where an absence matters most
Pennsylvania’s 203 House and 50 Senate lawmakers serve two primary functions for their combined 12.81 million constituents.
The first is providing constituent services, which often means helping residents navigate the hulking bureaucracy that makes up state government. If a Pennsylvanian needs to dispute a tax bill or obtain a professional license from a regulatory board, they’ll often turn to their state senator or representative.
Drew Crompton, a longtime aide to Senate Republicans, said Folmer’s staff in his district and Capitol offices remains in place to handle day-to-day constituent calls and inquiries.
Constituents can also turn to their state House representative if their senator is inaccessible. But Rep. Russ Diamond, who represents Lebanon County in the state House, said his office hasn’t felt any increased demand in constituent services since Folmer’s departure.
Diamond said he and Folmer were scheduled to make some public appearances together and were working on joint legislation before Folmer resigned.
But Diamond, who is one of 11 Republicans vying to replace Folmer in the Senate, is confident he can “pick up the ball” for Lebanon County residents until a successor takes office.
“[The hardest part] is really just the emotional impact, the total shock and disbelief at the circumstances that caused this,” Diamond said. “It was like a gut punch for many people. It’s tough to recover from and tough to process.”
Beyond providing constituent services, a state lawmaker’s other main function is to vote on legislation, both as a member of committees and as part of the entire legislative chamber.
According to Crompton, it’s in this capacity that the absence of a lawmaker matters most.
Folmer chaired the Senate State Government Committee, which is currently mulling important legislation that would change Pennsylvania’s election laws as well as its process for drawing congressional and legislative district boundaries.
Crompton said that Folmer’s senior committee staff may assume more day-to-day duties of running that panel, especially to bring its new interim chair, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, up to speed on legislation.
Folmer championed redistricting legislation during his tenure as State Government Committee chair, leaving some redistricting advocates concerned that his resignation would jeopardize action on the contentious and highly politicized issue.
But other lawmakers who worked with Folmer on the bills are hopeful that his permanent replacement on the State Government Committee will share his commitment to election and redistricting reform.
“We were going to try and do this together, and now I have to get with whoever the new chairman’s gonna be and see if we can move forward on these issues without missing too many steps,” Rep. Garth Everett, the Lycoming County Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee, told the Capital-Star in September.
A new senator by January
When a state lawmaker resigns, the lieutenant governor must schedule a special election to find a replacement. State law requires those races to be held 60 days after an elected official leaves office.
Voters in the 48th district will choose a new state senator on Jan. 14 — delayed to accommodate the November general election — and the newly elected lawmaker will be sworn into the Senate at least two weeks later, Crompton said.
Folmer had eight staffers under his command, Crompton said, including one assigned full-time to the State Government Committee.
When Folmer’s eventual replacement takes office, they may retain some of Folmer’s staff or bring in new hires. But Senate staff does as much as they can to mitigate churn, Crompton said.
“Members have some degree of autonomy on hiring people,” Crompton said. “There’s always issues with job security with people who work here … and we try to transition staff to other members when that’s feasible.”
Senate Republicans had to lay off 40 people when the caucus lost five seats in 2018, Crompton said.
But layoffs will likely not be on the table this time around.
It’s widely expected that the GOP will hold on to the seat in the 48th district, which is home to 82,000 registered Republicans, 56,000 Democrats, and 25,000 registered independents, data from the Department of State show.