Senate panel debates redistricting

Gov. Wolf endorses idea of ‘independent redistricting commission’

HARRISBURG — With the implications of a court-ordered congressional redistricting for 2018 still settling in, a Senate committee held a long-awaited hearing Tuesday on legislation to change the way both state legislative and congressional seats are redistricted following the 2020 census.

However, for those hoping to change that process, some of which involves changing the Pennsylvania Constitu­tion, time appears to be running out.

Senate State Government Committee Majority Chair­man Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, said he hopes to find an agreement on potential changes in the coming months.

Currently, the redistricting of state legislative districts is done by a special commission dominated by the General Assembly’s legislative caucus leaders, as established by the state Constitution. Congressional redistricting is prescribed in state law, not the state Constitution.

“The status quo doesn’t work,” said Folmer during his committee’s Tuesday hearing. “I will be the first to tell you.”

Lawmakers face a July 6 deadline for action if they want to amend the Consti­tu­tion, in order to give state officials time to draw up a ballot question and publicly advertise it before the Nov. 6 general election. An amendment would have to be approved during both the current 2017-18 legislative session as well as the 2019-20 legislative session before it could be submitted to Pennsyl­vania voters during a regularly scheduled 2020 state­wide election.

The three-month advertising timetable is established by the Department of State, said C.J. Hafner, Senate Democratic chief counsel.

Realistically, this means achieving initial approval of a constitutional amendment while lawmakers work on passing the Fiscal Year 2018-19 state budget, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, who proposed one of the bills discussed Tuesday.

“That [July 6 deadline is] going to be the challenge,” said Folmer. “But if there is a will, there is a way.”

The committee heard testimony regarding four bills sponsored by Democratic senators to create various versions of a state commission, which supporters say would handle redistricting in an independent, nonpolitical fashion.

Three of the bills — Senate Bill 22, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northamp­ton; Senate Bill 464, sponsored by Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna; and Senate Bill 243, sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery — seek to amend the state Constitution and focus on both the drawing of state legislative and congressional districts.

The fourth bill, Senate Bill 767, sponsored by Costa, would be handled as a typical bill — requiring approval by the General Assembly and the governor — since it involves congressional redistricting only.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday endorsed the idea of an “independent redistricting commission” as part of proposals to change the state’s election laws.

The Senate hearing came at an auspicious moment, one week after the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal district court declined to hear state legislative Republican requests to block a congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court had declared Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map unconstitutional in late January.

With dozens of congressional candidates running in 18 districts suddenly redrawn by the court, senators expressed their interest in avoiding a repeat of this scenario during the 2022 election cycle.