CRANBERRY TWP — A controversial redistricting bill has been changed to take a proposed citizens commission and the governor out of the process of approving new political districts in Pennsylvania.
The amendment was approved along a party-line vote, 15-11.
It changes House Bill 722, which originally established an independent citizens commission which would be appointed to redraw districts apart from the Legislature.
States are required to draw new legislative districts after every Census.
Committee Chairman Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-12th, raised concerns that such a citizens commission would be unaccountable to the voters and lead to abuse.
“There is no greater citizens commission than the General Assembly of this state,” he said. “I think 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 that are not just going to go away once the work is done, that they can be accountable in the future for their decisions, is to totally gut and replace this bill with the amendment that is now before us.”
The amended bill creates a six-member commission, with three members from each chamber of the state Legislature. Each chamber picks one from each caucus and then votes on the third. To pass a proposed redistricting map, at least five members must vote in favor of it.
“This will set up a much better process than what the other side was offering,” Metcalfe said in a later interview.
The amended bill also removed the governor's right to approve or reject proposed district lines.
Finally, Metcalfe said the amended bill pushes back on what he sees as a partisan state Supreme Court.
“We took the Supreme Court totally out of that activity altogether,” Metcalfe later said.
Any appeals to the adopted maps would go through the Commonwealth Court, which would remand any unconstitutional maps back to the commission.
However, appeals to the Commonwealth Court decisions could ultimately go to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“Ultimately the way the Constitution is set up, the Supreme Court would have the ultimate say,” Metcalfe said.
Minority chair Matthew Bradford, raised concerns that the majority is proposing a change to the state Constitution in a half-hour meeting without consulting the public or the other party.
“Let me tell the citizens of Pennsylvania, you're not the only ones who haven't seen this amendment,” he said. “I've never seen this amendment, the minority party has never seen the amendment … We propose to amend the Constitution by 11 o'clock. This process is broken.”
Bradford proposed postponing the vote so the public and the minority party could look at the proposed amendment.
His motion did not pass.
The amendment comes after the minority party moved to discharge the bill from the State Government Committee, Metcalfe said.
“They were trying to discharge it from my committee,” he said. “So we took the wind out of their sails in their discharge attempt.”
Metcalfe also said he has no plans to bring the amended bill up for a vote.
Fair Districts PA chair Carol Kuniholm said she was disappointed with the committee's decision but said their work isn't over yet.
“The way this was executed was incredibly disrespectful to constituents, to colleagues and to Pennsylvania voters in general,” she said, “and really a trampling of the intent of the constitution and the legislative process.”
And while HB 722 is dead as she'd known it, Kuniholm says they have made progress with its identical counterpart in the state Senate.
“SB 22 continues to move. Sen. Folmer (R-48th) had a hearing,” she said. “There was great discussion. There was a real attempt to understand.”
Folmer chairs the Senate State Government Committee. The next hearing on that bill will be April 24.
In the past, once the redistricting deadline passed, Kuniholm said gerrymandering reform activists would drop the cause for years, until it became pressing.
“We're not going to do that this time,” she said.