Thursday, May 15, 2008

Redistricting on PCN Call-In Show

PCN Call-In Show, Wed. May 14th

This show focused on the issue of redistricting and discusses a bill introduced by Rep. Steve Samuelson, HB 2420.

The host was Bryan Lochman. Questions from Lochman are marked Q, questions from callers are marked C, the representatives' answers are noted by their initials (MC and SS). This was a lively show and will be on the pcn website for about another week. I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO WATCH THIS EPISODE OR AT LEAST PART OF IT to get a flavor of the two sides. As always, what I am presenting are rough notes and I apologize in advance for any errors or misconceptions.

Rep. Mark Cohen D-Philadelphia, chairs house majority caucus

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton and Lehigh Counties

Q: Redistricting?

SS: System we have now puts redistricting in hands of caucus leaders of house and senate and. Chance to adopt a new system, a non-partisan system. We introduced this bill last week, has 90 co-sponsors, 50 Democrats and 40 Republicans

MC: Now we have a bipartisan system, he wants a nonpartisan system, chance for more problems with nonpartisan. The League of Women Voters has 8 goals this doesn’t meet 5 of them

Q: Explain why this maters

SS: A fundamental reform, to respond to MC, LWV of PA strongly in support of this legislation, helped develop this legislation. To see what’s wrong with current system just look at maps, look at districts, twp of 20,000 people split into 3 congressional districts, one place has 6 different state senators. Going to a nonpartisan process you will have compact contiguous respect boundaries of counties, townships, etc. Central to representative democracy.

Q: explain how it works now

MC: bipartisan redistricting with both parties involved. Nonpartisan hurts individual interests, no parties involved. Right now citizens have access to leadership through their elected representatives, can say they want to be in X’s district or Y’s district. Can submit plans. Can submit directly to decisions makers as people who have some power over decision makers, vote for legislators who elect leaders. Legislators can be thrown out of office. Most legislators at last reapportionment won’t be in office in 2009, people have no power over legislative reference bureau who would do redistricting under new plan. No one knows who they are, can’t throw them out of office. Turning power over to legislative reference bureau a step away from transparency toward back room dealing. Accountable solely to leaders.

Q: Who decides who the people are who currently draw lines?

SS: 5 people, leaders of house and senate, D and R, and neutral person selected by leaders. Leaders engage in bipartisan mischief, goes on behind closed doors. This new proposal would open up process, plans posted in the Internet. Currently trade this township for section of that city to create district that is more powerful for that party. By taking politics out of it as state of Iowa has done, makes it more transparent, starting with census data. Under this bill the very first plan developed by legislative reference bureau goes not to legislature but to the public, LVW calls it voter first, 5 public hearings around the state, before legislature decides

MC: no power over decision-makers, legis ref bur then legislators, people address commission

Q: what is legis ref bur

SS: unquestioned reputation for fairness, integrity. Sometimes strong divisions over issues but leg ref bur not involved. They actually write the bills and amendments but don’t get involved in partisanship. In Iowa it is legislative service bureau. In Iowa in 1980 and 1990 plan adopted on first try.

MC: I dispute that system has worked in state of Iowa. They have put system of selective term limits on legislators. In Iowa in last round 62 legislators forced into districts with another legislator and then retired or ran for another office.

C: What you’re saying should happen is a good idea. The party leaders are never going to allow this to happen, asking them to give up some of their power.

SS: Proposals have been around for several years, bill in 2002 but strength of movement growing, in 2002 25 sponsors, in 2006 up to 38 sponsors last year 56 sponsors, this one has 90 sponsors, almost half the legislature. Had open meeting in Philly. On May 29th there will be a committee hearing in committee chaired by a co-sponsor of the bill. But will be very difficult to get party leaders to bring this bill up for a vote. The importance of citizen involvement in getting this bill up for a vote.

Q: require constitutional amendment?

SS: yes, vote in two legislative sessions, 2008 and 2009/10 and then go on ballot and citizens have the final say. In order to get this done by 2011 has to pass this session. If it doesn’t pass this session it can’t be done again for another 10 years. Senate state government committee considering a very similar proposal the first week of June.

Q: Can leadership kills this?

MC: No, if the public really wants a bill that will reduce its role they can. Right now legislators directly accountable to the public. This bill will take that away and give power to legis ref bur, nor is leg ref bur in support of this bill, no expertise on the subject.

SS: In fairness legis ref bur has taken no position in favor or against it

MC: This is a step backwards.

C: I’ve never seen such spurious reasoning as the caucus leader (Cohen) is giving. This will give us more competitive districts.

MC: This bill does not mention the word competition, does not encourage competition, takes away a measurement of competition, voting returns in prior elections. Cannot consider voting returns in prior elections in designing districts. The only strength of this bill is to encourage compactness but that has nothing to do with competition.

SS: The section of the bill mentioned is good. Right now the districts are drawn to create safe D and R districts. Draw lines in nonpartisan manner, don’t consider prior returns, address of incumbent, party membership. Dispute that legislators have a voice now, only 4 do – legislative leaders. Only 4 party leaders in a back room drawing lines. This bill gives us fairer and more compact districts that more closely reflect communities.

MC: You’re right there are cases like that. Your district was given more D’s but you were against this. My district was given more R’s was 14% now 23% after last redistricting, now about 40% R. Doesn’t always work as SS says. Sometimes become more partisan sometimes less.

Q: Look at maps, John Murtha’s congressional district 12th congressional.

MC: This was done by House and Senate vote. This was recommended by Rep Nat’l committee, R had majority then and was adopted. Spread R’s out throughout state, created many districts with narrow R majority, right in short run, wrong in long run, started out with slim R majority now have narrow D majority, now 12 of 19 seats, strongest since D landslide year of 1964. Attempts to gerrymander backfired.

SS: District looks like long 100 mile snake around Pittsburgh. This bill attempts to change bipartisan michief to nonpartisan.

C: Thank you SS. When legislators are making these decisions, there are many pressures on them. Strongly in favor of bill. Main goal should be rational more fair and balanced districts. [Mentions an odd district in Philly.]

SS: That district is 172nd in Philadelphia, represented by former Speaker of the House John Perzel. Changed shape dramatically in last 10 years.

Q: Is that what happens, create safe district?

MC: When we started the process, there were 5 R districts in Phila, Perzel and R leadership decided to lower number of R districts to 4 and one of the remaining districts, held by George Kenney would get more D’s and he is retiring and district will probably become D. R districts went down to 3. So Perzel got more R’s. That was a reasonable agreement. Fewer R in Philly. Leaves some R representation in city.

SS: As an alternative, almost every sentence of that explanation had a partisan word in it. We need to create nonpartisan districts. Partisan considerations should not be central thing people drawing lines worry about.

MC: Differences in legislation along partisan lines. Saying no partisan interests does not stop backroom manipulation.

C: Why does the US govt have 2 senators in each state regardless of R and D. Why not have districts with contiguous population. Then representatives have to satisfy all population not just one particular group. Concerns of that general area need to be concerns of rep.

SS: was a time when districts were drawn that way. Supreme Court case, Baker vs. Carr, said districts should be as nearly equal as possible in number of people represented.

Q: have any of you been in session to draw lines

SS: no

MC: yes. There are discussions about the pros and cons of drawing lines in one way or another way. Public policy discussions about voting data. In certain cases there is trading as SS says to strengthen D and R. In some occasions it doesn’t. I’ve gained significantly more Rs than it had previously.

SS: In my district I got a district that got more Ds. I was trying to keep a community together. I had city of Bethlehem, D, and Hanover Twp, R, which has had legislators of both parties. In 2001 party leaders took Hanover township away to another district. Decision made behind closed doors, no reporters, no citizens. I Imagine someone wanted to give R twp to an R district. Trade that benefited party leaders but not citizens of those two communities which are intertwined including school district. I had no input.

MC: he had input but it was ignored.

Q: Are there times when someone is a thorn in someone’s side and they get rid of them?

MC: yes. But rare. This proposed bill bans acting in preference to strengthen a candidate but does not ban hurting an incumbent.

SS: No, legis ref bur can’t even consider where the incumbent lives.

MC: It says can’t draw in favor of party incumbent or group. Doesn’t say you can work against someone.

SS: The system where there are political paybacks would be removed.

C: [describes 2 oddly shaped districts] Let’s get back to idea of having districts as geographically square as possible.

Q: [gives history of gerrymander, Gov. Eldridge Gerry, district looked like salamander, thus gerrymander] have computers changed how we do this

SS: Computers are used but sometimes results same. Gerrymander looks like 2?th senate district, Emmaus, Quakertown

Q: protect minority rights?

MC: Under voting rights act, minorities are entitled to be represented in a reasonable proportion to their numbers provided there is no adverse results for any other groups. This bill makes the art of drawing those districts more difficult. Bans consideration of election returns.

SS: It’s hard to argue that a totally non partisan system is unconstitutional. One possible amendment to take out words to favor one group.

C: Are there any independent districts

SS: under the current system required minority and majority party to have 4 seats at the table, no wording on independent.

MC: The two co-authors of current system were R and D, serves to represent minority interests very well. In 93 of the 203 districts there has been a change of party label of person holding the seat at least once since 1967. 26 additional districts where one party came within 100 votes of winning district. Competitive districts.

C: lends support to Samuelson’s proposal. Cohen’s position is horrible.

MC: There is a lot of cynicism about how things are. Seen that it exists now is worst possible system. Current system is a major reform led to a system of fluidity in which role of independent voters is enhanced. Cites change in majority and minority parties in House. There is an awful lot of fluidity here. The charge that this protects incumbents and politicians acting again public doesn’t stand up to examination.

SS: Cohen and I work together well on other things but disagree on this. 2 weeks ago a public meeting in Strasburg, 75 people came out on a Saturday morning.

MC: if the citizens win on this change get the opportunity to have legis ref bur draw up districts.

C: cites one compact district that has one office, a long distended district that has 3 offices.

MC: People in the district often have commonalties of interest, goes over township, ward and borough lines. Mass transit in my district links people together. All sorts of thing can link one end of the district to the other end of the district. Doesn’t really have anything to do with redistricting, staff size and number of offices. Depends on individual operating styles.

SS: One senator has 4 district offices. If you switch to a system with a respect for political boundaries, counties, cities, townships will get districts that are more compact.

C: reduce size of legislature

MC: Not necessary to have any legislators, can just have governor make all decisions. Could have 3 member legislature. Only reasons we have 203 house and 50 senate is to recognize wisdom and interest of people across the state. Could cut but we limit power and influence of citizens.

SS: Agree with Cohen. Can meet with legislator who represents 60,000 people. If fewer districts and make them larger then costs more to run for office, more money in elections, more special interests.

Q: Laws preventing house and senate leadership running roughshod when drawing lines?

MC: yes, laws against racial discrimination. Laws saying districts compact and contiguous and split boundary lines only when necessary. Necessary to accomplish what? Language in this proposal also vague but a little less so. The more you try to equalize districts and focus on population, constant fluctuation and over time that leads to odd shaped districts.

Q: If people don’t like outcome can they challenge this in court?

MC: the reapportionment commission done a better job in 1981 29 cases, in 1991 there were 25, in 2001 there were X [missed number but it was fewer than 25] cases.

Q: right to carry act, house bill 2231, nov 2005

SS: firearms proposal, amendment

Q: what happens to redistricting bill?

SS: May 29th hearing, roughly half of committee sponsored the bill. The timetable is very tight. If out of committee must persuade leaders to bring it up for a vote.

MC: If citizens demand and get this change will have less influence over redistricting than they have today.

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