Last Tuesday was a whirlwind day for the Tuesdays with Toomey gang. We joined up with SEIU, PA Together, Why Courts Matter, and other groups to make lobbying visits to our state legislators. That day our focus was “Right to Work” and the fight for collective bargaining. But we never want to pass up an opportunity, so we did double duty by also dropping off Indivisible Berks’ statement on SB 22-the gerrymandering bill.
The State House with its marble halls, Mercer tiles, and Victoria Oakley murals is a sight to behold, but much like the bureaucratic hoops we have to jump through to reach our senators and representatives, the layout of the building leaves a lot (and I mean a lot!) to be desired. No matter how many times we’ve traversed the rabbit warren that is our Capitol, it never fails that we have to consult our maps, backtrack, and finally submit to the utter humiliation of asking someone at the information desk. You’d think as the dedicated activists we are and after almost 80 weeks of Tuesdays with Toomey, we’d have it down pat, but maybe geography isn’t our strong suit. Visiting the State House in Harrisburg is always an experience, but visiting it with Jane Palmer is like riding the Tilt-A-Whirl at a carnival. First of all, she knows everybody-from other activists to staffers to the many legislators with whom she’s on a first name basis. Sometimes we don’t even knock on their office doors! Hey-it is our house after all. The best part is that with having those connections, you’re sure to be on top of the latest comings and goings at the Capitol. Such was the case on Tuesday. We were barely through the metal detectors when we found out that Senator Lisa Baker’s legislation SB 1189 that would render the fracking ban in the Delaware River Basin an act of eminent domain had passed 9-3 in committee. Then we ran into Rep Mark Rozzi who was gearing up for a big press conference on his fight for the victims of childhood sex abuse. Jane just so happened to have her "Smash the Patriarchy" sign, so how could we resist joining Mark and other survivors on the steps in the main rotunda?
The history of SB 22, the PA Senate redistricting bill, is an equally wild ride. The twists and turns in the progression of SB 22 are enough to give a person whiplash. Amendments to amendments and the on-again, off-again backing from various advocacy groups have made the issue confusing to navigate. Initially groups like ours joined Fair Districts PA and other strong proponents of redistricting reform in support of the legislation to create an independent citizen’s commission to redraw PA’s Congressional district lines. But as things often happen in the Capitol, a last minute amendment proposed by Senator Folmer made the bill unpalatable, and IB and many other groups withdrew support. This was the message we delivered to Berks legislators last Tuesday.
Let’s step off the ride for a second and review what SB 22 was at its introduction in February 2017. SB 22 as originally written would have established a citizens’ redistricting commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and three Independent/minority members randomly selected from a pool of eligible applicants. The bill sat in the State Government Committee led by, as one reporter from the Morning Call refers to him, “the troglodytic House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe”, and was subsequently “mutilated”. Metcalfe’s tinkering with the bill would have kept mapmaking in the hands of the politicians. Of some note, on June 4th 2018 Speaker of the House Mike Turzai moved the bill out of what the same reporter calls “the black hole of Metcalfe’s State Government Committee” to Appropriations. Enter Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon). Folmer introduced an amendment that would require the commission members to be appointed by politicians. The majority and minority leaders of the State Senate and House would each select two members from their respective political parties. The Governor would then appoint three independent or 3d-party citizens, making a total of eleven. The entire commission would then have to be approved by two-thirds of the State Legislature, thus putting politics back into the mix. With the addition of the Folmer Amendment, support of SB 22 began to fracture. Fair Districts was still backing it, arguing it was a step in the right direction, but other groups like Indivisible Berks, Make the Road PA, and the NAACP came out in opposition.
Keep your seatbelts on, there’s more. In response to the Folmer Amendment, Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice introduced their own amendment that would strengthen the role of the minority party and the governor in choosing members of the commission. If the commission would become deadlocked, the plans it submits must have support of the minority and majority parties and independent members of the commission. This would have ensured independence in the process. Unfortunately Senator Hughes’ amendment failed along a party-line vote. Folmer’s amendment passed on the Senate floor on Tuesday with only one dissenting vote, that of Senator Hughes.
We were just about to leave the rotunda last week when we learned that the bill would again be modified with what people were describing as the “poison pill” amendment. Senate Republican Ryan Aument of Lancaster added a new and unrelated change that would ask PA voters if state appellate judges should be elected from regional districts instead of statewide as they are now. The Aument amendment would split the PA StateSupreme Court into seven districts. Some are saying it’s revenge for the way the PA Supreme Court ruled in the gerrymandering case. The amendment would most likely lead to more GOP judges, since they would be chosen from areas outside of the population centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
With the addition of the Aument amendment to the bill, Fair Districts PA revoked its support for SB 22 on Tuesday afternoon. Chairwoman Carol Kuniholm said, "It is with a heavy heart that Fair Districts PA is withdrawing its support for Senate Bill 22. ... Yesterday's maneuver underscores Senate leaders' deep disregard for advocates who are eager for bipartisan redistricting reform — including thousands of their own constituents," she wrote. "We are outraged, but not defeated. We will take our case to the House, and from there, to the polls, where every single representative faces re-election in the fall." The Aument amendment ended up passing with Berks’ Senators Rafferty and Schwank voting against it. SB 22 went on to be passed in the Senate on Wednesday with no Democratic votes in favor.
As I write-told you it was a wild ride-the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Wisconsin and Maryland gerrymandering claims-saying discrimination cannot be based on partisan affiliation. The high court basically kicked it back to the lower courts. The ruling or lack thereof is a setback in the battle against partisan gerrymandering, but rest assured the fight will go on.
posted by Amy Levengood
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