GOP guts bill proposing independent redistricting commission

Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in a file photo from August 2017. (AP, file)

Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in a file photo from August 2017. (AP, file)

The Pennsylvania legislature would get more control over how state legislative boundary lines are drawn under an amended bill that passed out of the House Government Committee along party lines Wednesday.

The original bill removed lawmakers from the process in favor of an independent citizens’ commission.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, says lawmakers are the most accountable of anyone who might be tasked with legislative reapportionment.

“The best way to make sure we have citizens actually being the ones redrawing, citizens who are held accountable to their fellow citizens who elect them to office, and are not just going to go away after the work is done, and be held accountable in the future for their decisions, is to totally gut and replace this bill,” said Metcalfe, committee chairman.

Metcalfe’s amendment completely changed House Bill 722 from its original intent.

The new version calls for six lawmakers, instead of the current five, to have a direct hand in the process, and it cuts out the governor, who typically can sign or veto maps just like any other piece of legislation.

As introduced, the bill had called for an independent citizens’ redistricting commission. Its Senate companion remains unchanged after a public hearing a couple weeks ago, with another hearing scheduled later this month.

They’re among a handful of bills filed since last year when multiple lawsuits were filed over Pennsylvania’s congressional map.

One of the lawsuits led to the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court finding the map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The court replaced it with one drawn by an outside expert, despite Republicans’ objections and legal challenges.

The landmark ruling, however, had nothing to do with state legislative boundaries, and had no direct bearing on the either the state or congressional redistricting processes – hence the flurry of legislation.

HB722 had been stalled in Metcalfe’s committee for over 11 months.

He says he acted now because of expectations that Democrats would try to use a parliamentary maneuver to get the bill to a floor vote without committee approval. Known as a discharge resolution, the move is meant for measures stalled for at least two weeks.

Changing the entity in control of redistricting entails amending the state constitution. And that requires legislation to pass the General Assembly twice in consecutive sessions before garnering ballot approval by voters.

Some other states, including California, have been able to switch to an independent citizens’ redistricting commission through direct ballot measures initiated entirely by voters.

This difference highlights one of the structural reasons that led to Pennsylvania being thought of as one of the most severely gerrymandered states in the nation.

Another one: chronic inaction on any bills attempting to change the redistricting process.

By moving out of committee, this bill — albeit in an altered state — joins the thin ranks of reapportionment legislation to see any action. Over the past four decades or so, the vast majority of dozens of measures haven’t moved at all; the last was in the 1990s.

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