New Castle News

Mitchel Olszak

April 16, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Reshaping Legislature remains self-serving project

NEW CASTLE — When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a legislative reapportionment plan earlier this year, it created a tizzy.

At least among state lawmakers. They had gone to the trouble of crafting new districts designed to aid their re-election efforts, and here were judges who demanded better.

This was something new for Pennsylvania politics: Courts, insisting that the Legislature put people first. Historically, appellate courts in the commonwealth have served as silent partners for legislative gerrymandering and other self-serving shenanigans in Harrisburg.

But this year was different and a majority on the Supreme Court said no. The Legislature was ordered to go back to the drawing board, and one result is that this year’s legislative races will operate in the same boundaries established after the 2000 census. It won’t be until 2014 that elections are held for new districts based on population shifts.

As you might expect, lawmakers — especially legislative leaders — were unhappy that their carefully crafted map manipulations were rejected. But after a failed effort to get the federal courts to reverse the decision by their state counterparts, the Legislature eventually started work on a replacement plan.

Last week, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission — composed of legislative leaders and one judge — came up with a new map for Pennsylvania’s 50 Senate and 203 House districts. Among other things, it was intended to address concerns raised by the Supreme Court over municipalities being split into different districts and making those districts more compact, rather than oddly shaped.

Locally, there are changes, mainly regarding the Senate. Beaver County Republican Elder Vogel’s district would take in all of Lawrence County under the plan. Sen. Bob Robbins of Mercer County no longer would represent any portion of the county.

But here’s an interesting tidbit in this redistricting plan. A major change is that the district of state Sen. Jane Orie of Allegheny County would be eliminated. Instead, that district would be moved to the eastern part of the state to account for population changes.

Why? As you may recall, Orie was convicted a few weeks ago on charges related to using her staff for political purposes. Once she is sentenced, Orie no longer will be able to hold office.

So from a political standpoint, throwing Orie’s district overboard makes sense. It certainly fits with Harrisburg’s notion of protecting incumbents. With Orie out of the picture, there’s no incumbent in that seat to worry about.

But this move symbolizes all that’s wrong with creating legislative districts in Harrisburg. It shows that reapportionment is an internal, self-serving process. The politicians worry about themselves, rather than citizens or communities. It’s the very thing that caused the Supreme Court to cry foul.

This is one more example of why Pennsylvania needs a new system for looking at both legislative and congressional redistricting efforts. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission was designed to minimize Republican and Democratic squabbling over remapping, but it ultimately makes the interests of politicians superior to the interests of the people.

And when you have incumbents who are too comfortable with their districts, Pennsylvania history shows, all sorts of mischief arises.

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Mitchel Olszak
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