HARRISBURG – When it comes to protecting the interests of rural parts of Pennsylvania, one local state representative feels that plans to shrink the size of the Legislature may do more harm than good.
State Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) said on Monday that while she fully expects the state House to approve a reduction in the number of its members, she can’t support the effort.
The comments came on the heels of last week’s vote by the House State Government Committee, which voted to send to the full House a state constitutional amendment to reduce the number of seats in the chamber from 203 to 151.
Oberlander explained that in order to amend the state Constitution, identical bills must be passed in two sessions. Last week’s approval by the committee sets up a full House vote on the matter, which could come next week. If approved by the full House for the second time, the issue would then be placed on the November ballot for approval by voters.
Oberlander said she voted against the measure the first time around, and will likely do so again. She said she previously voted against the effort “because of my concerns about the rural part of our state.”
Supporters of the plan argue that Pennsylvania has the largest full-time state legislature in the country, costing taxpayers around $350 million a year.
Oberlander said she understands the financial argument.
“I get that; I can respect that,” she said.
However, Oberlander said she feels rural areas — such as her 63rd District which includes Clarion County, a large portion of northern Armstrong County, and part of Forest County — are already at a disadvantage and outnumbered in the state’s decision making process.
“That’s my main issue,” she said.
If approved, Oberlander said she has heard that House districts, which are drawn up based on population, could increase by 20,000 to 22,500 people, to around 85,000 total.
Oberlander said that while some districts in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh could span only a few highly populated city blocks, rural districts would sprawl even farther out, across even more territory than they already do.
“There are large parts of our state that don’t have a lot of people, but they are still important people too,” Oberlander said.
She explained that even if the reduction moves forward this year, it would still take several years to put everything in place. The new districts would be drawn up using data collected in the upcoming 2020 census.
Because of that, Oberlander said the next census count would be extremely important for the local area, and essential that the full population is counted.