Two public hearings scheduled, website will be online Thursday
PA panel has 150 days to draw map for redistricting
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Start the clock.
The state’s legislative redistricting process must be completed in less than 150 days, starting Wednesday.
And while a handful of small errors still must be corrected, the public can inspect all census data the commission is using as the basis for redrawing the state House and state Senate map for the next decade.
“We can begin our work, but I think as we get closer and closer to finalizing the maps, those changes have to be made,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. “It’s useable, but it can be better. It can be corrected.”
The state Legislative Reapportionment Commission consists of Dermody; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny; and former state Superior Court Justice Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to be chairman of the commission.
Members of the commission identified 129 precincts in which the precinct lines and blocks of census data may not line up. That total is less than than 2 percent of Pennsylvania’s 9,200 voting precincts. In most cases, the lines in question affect only a small percentage of the total voters in the precinct, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pileggi.
Previously, commission staffers identified more than 700 such irregularities in the overlay of precinct and census data, but most have been corrected, and commission members on both sides said there was no reason to suspect the remaining issues would not be settled before the commission released a preliminary map.
The commission voted unanimously to move ahead with the redistricting process and correct the errors as they go. They also approved the census data, which officially starts the clock ticking on the process.
“The data certainly, at this point, is usable,” Pileggi said. “We shouldn’t let the tail wag the dog, when it comes to moving forward.”
Although the remaining errors are spread across the state, the highest concentrations are in the Delaware and Westmoreland counties. The counties — suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, respectively — have a high number of small and strangely shaped boroughs and towns, which contribute to some of the difficulties, said Arneson.
Commission promises public access
The commission has 90 days to complete the preliminary map, after which the public can comment on them during a 30-day waiting period. After that, the commission has 30 days to approve the final plan.
Unlike many states, the commission itself has the final say on the map and does not require the approval of the General Assembly or the governor.
The commission will have public hearings Sept. 7 in Allentown and Sept. 14 in Pittsburgh.
The commission will launch its website (www.redistricting.state.pa.us) Thursday. The website will contain all census data for state House, state Senate and congressional districts in Pennsylvania. The public can view the districts that have grown and shrunk and the demographics.
Although the commission is not responsible for congressional redistricting — which is handled by the General Assembly as a whole — the same data will be used for that process, which has yet to begin and has no constitutionally imposed deadline.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a watchdog group calling for greater transparency in the redistricting process, praised the level of detail in the website, but said he hoped public hearings would be held in each of the state’s seven media markets, instead of only two.
Turzai said he would be open to having more meetings. He also said he believes the two scheduled hearing were only the beginning of the process.
Growing and shrinking
In general, the eastern parts of the state gained population in the past 10 years and will require smaller districts, while western districts will increase in size, because they have lost population.
The counties with the most growth since the 2000 census are Butler County on the Ohio border, York and Adams counties on the Maryland border, and Monroe County on the New Jersey border.
Monroe County, in particular, will be a key component of the redistricting process, particularly when the commission draws state Senate seats. The county is represented by six state senators, none of whom live within the borders of the county because their districts encompass parts of neighboring counties as well.
“I don’t think it serves the county very well at all,” Kauffman said. “The (state) Constitution is very specific that you’re not supposed to unnecessarily divide any existing political area.”
Monroe has gained significant population since 2000, growing from 138,000 residents to more than 169,000 in the past 10 years. It is now nearly large enough to have its own Senate seat, but rearranging the handful of districts carved into it will force the commission to reshape almost the entire northeastern part of the state Senate map.
With the updated census numbers approved, each state Senate district will have 254,000 residents, up from 245,000 residents.
Commission members declined to discuss Monroe County’s situation in detail until more work has been done.
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, one of the six senators with a portion of Monroe County in her district, said she was disappointed the commission would not honor her request to have a public hearing in the county, though she noted the Allentown hearing was at least a reasonable alternative.
Monroe “County residents have been slighted by fragmented legislative representation for many years,” Boscola said in a statement. “There has justifiably been a growing public call to provide the county with its own senator.”
The commission was granted a budget of $4.8 million by the Legislature to complete its work. McEwen is receiving an $80,000 stipend for serving as the commission’s chairman. Staff salaries will consume more than $300,000.
Please, feel free to "steal our stuff"! Just remember to credit Watchdog.org. Find out more