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Special Elections to Coincide with April Primaries — Update

The state Supreme Court has ordered special elections for six vacant House seats to coincide with next month’s primary.  The high court’s order says the fundamental right to representation is at issue, and Philadelphia attorney Kevin Greenberg says 350,000 residents will now have somebody to represent them. 

“It’s likely some of these folks will be Democrat, it’s likely some of these folks will be Republican.  But these 350,000 people will be able to elect somebody to vote for them in the Statehouse and that’s and important right,” says Greenberg, who represents the 11-constituents who filed petitions with the court.  Greenberg says each of the six districts is represented by at least one petitioner. 

Speaker of the House Sam Smith had maintained that he was not able to call special elections until the new legislative redistrict maps were adopted.  But the legislative redistricting process is still not resolved, and the Supreme Court says these special elections will be held using the 2001 boundaries.

The opinion reads: “The district boundaries for the six vacant seats at issue here were set in the 2001 Final Reapportionment Plan, and the new members who would be elected to serve the remainder of their terms will merely step into the shoes of their predecessors – just as the Speaker and every other sitting House member who is currently seated under the districts set forth in the 2001 redistricting map.”     

Four of the posts had been held by Democrats, and Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn hails the decision as an important victory.  “Republicans have tried to delay the elections and silence the voices of Pennsylvanians, but today’s ruling is a stinging rebuke to Harrisburg politicians who have picked politics over property representing Pennsylvania,” Burn said in a statement. 

Three of the six vacant seats are located in Philadelphia, and one each in Montgomery, Lehigh and Allegheny counties.

UPDATE: Speaker Smith released a statement Thursday afternoon in which he said he would call the special elections.  However, that statement blasted the Supreme Court for ignoring the clear intention of the law, and “advancing its own veiled agenda.”

Committee Advances Bill to Reduce Size of State House

Some say the 203-member state House is too big for its own good, and HB 153 would slash membership by 50 following the 2020 Census.  It received some bipartisan support in the House State Government Committee on Tuesday.  Its next stop is the House floor. 

Knowing that similar bills have never seen the light of day, State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) called it a historic day.  “We get to send a message to the residents of Pennsylvania that we are serious about looking at the foundation of our General Assembly, we are serious about cutting our costs, we are serious about right-sizing government,” Grove said prior to the vote. 

HB 153 is sponsored by Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) and capitol observers say that kind of clout gives this measure a better shot at passing than previous efforts. 

Critics, however, contend that larger House districts would create a whole new set of problems.  “You are making us more dependent on special interest group money if you do decrease the size of the legislature,” says Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who also questions whether such an effort would actually save taxpayers money. 

Reducing the size of the state House would require a constitutional amendment, which means this bill would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before being put to a voter referendum.  HB 153 would not make any changes to the 50-member state Senate.

Final House Budget Vote Possible Today

    The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is poised to give its final approval to a $27.3 billion budget plan. The House voted 110-89 to advance the bill on Monday, setting up the final vote which could come as early as today. The spending plan stays true to Governor Tom Corbett’s overall spend figure, while supporters say it proritzes education funding over welfare spending. That means that while some of the Governor’s proposed education cuts are still included, some of that funding has been restored in the House version.

    House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) left the door open for more spending on Monday, but only if the Governor’s office changes its revenue projections for the new fiscal year which begins on July 1st. Meanwhile, Smith agrees with the governor’s stance on this year’s surplus, currently a half-billion dollars. That money is destined for reserve accounts or for debt payments.

    Speaking to the PA Press Club on Monday, Speaker Smith also laid the blame for this year’s budget deficit squarely on the shoulders of former Governor Ed Rendell. Smith says Rendell’s legacy is the $4 billion budget gap that lawmakers are now trying to fill.