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According to the organizers behind #FixHarrisburg, a growing number of Pennsylvania voters want to see the rules for Harrisburg politicians reformed.

Redistricting, to give voters a fair chance at electing representatives who reflect their districts, is one priority outlined by the organizers of the #FixHarrisburg campaign. Another is #ReformTheRules, a plea with elected officials to revise their standards so that a handful of politicians can no longer block bills from being discussed on the Capitol floor.

“We identified this as a problem, actually, several years ago,” Duncan S. MacLean, one of the movement’s founders, told LebTown.

“On Jan. 3, 2023, all of the newly elected or reelected legislators, senators and representatives, will convene,” MacLean explained. “The very first order of business is to approve the rules of procedure. At that moment, we hope that a majority of them will say they aren’t simply going to rubber stamp the old rules that give this much control to so few people.”

A poll by Franklin & Marshall College in 2019 showed “great popular support” among the voting public for reform, he noted.

According to the group’s website, fixharrisburg.com, “Unfair rules slam the door on bipartisan solutions.”

The website notes that #FixHarrisburg “is a campaign organized by Fair Districts PA and League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.”

“Procedural rules allow partisan gatekeepers to control the agenda, block reform and shut out our voices in Harrisburg,” the website explains. “These rules aren’t set in stone. Legislative leaders decide them at the start of every session. We demand better rules or a NO vote on the first day of session. … Bipartisan solutions deserve a vote.”

MacLean noted that the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the majority leaders in the House and Senate, and the committee chairs all have the authority to stop a bill from reaching the floor for a vote.

“If any one of those simply did not want to put a bill on the agenda, that was it, it was shut down,” he explained. “There was no further progress.”

A solution, MacLean said, can be boiled down to three simple assumptions:

  • Bipartisan solutions deserve a vote.
  • Bills with broad public support deserve a vote.
  • If a bill is passed in one chamber, it should automatically get a vote in the other chamber.

“Yay or nay, at least let it be debated and be considered,” MacLean said. “They play these political games. … They create paralysis, and it seems very intentional.”

Fair redistricting

A parallel effort, Fair Districts PA is a push for “an independent citizens redistricting commission, with clear, measurable map-drawing standards and rules for transparency, and public engagement.” However, group members explain, one solution won’t work without the other.

FairDistrictsPA.com has been active since 2016. Although the effort isn’t over, MacLean said a recent redistricting has improved things in Pennsylvania.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a vast improvement.

“The House map is head and shoulders an improvement. We thought the Senate map was still a little over-partisan, but it’s a major step in the right direction.”

MacLean said the “independent citizens redistricting commission” model is already being used in eight states.

He cited as an example a “little tentacle” in the lines of the new map near Allentown that “conveniently goes right into the development where the current senator lives.”

That portion of Lehigh County is represented by Senator Pat Browne, a Republican, who has been a state senator since 2005 and was a representative for the district from 1995 to 2005.

“It’s just hard to draw any conclusion other than that the map drawers yielded to some political pressure to preserve the position of the senator, rather than to represent the community,” MacLean said. “The community doesn’t have a squiggle, that’s not how it should be represented. … That’s one example of how the process was tainted but, overall, it was a great improvement.”

Legislators should not have any role in drawing legislative maps, he stressed.

MacLean said the organization also believes the redistricting commission “should be accompanied by some specific standards and rules that govern the actual product, the actual maps, but also the process, which should be transparent, accountable, open to the public and with a lot of public input.” That would require a constitutional amendment, he said.

“I have given scrupulous attention to being nonpartisan,” he noted. “I’m not endorsing or supporting any specific platform.”

His involvement was sparked by the redistricting issue, he said.

“I’ve never been politically active or this engaged before,” MacLean, a retired family physician, said. “I was skeptical. You fix this thing, you still have all the other issues that won’t be fixed. But unless you tackle redistricting, you bake in the structural problems that will paralyze the political process.”

Hope for change

Bills that have popular support but that have been blocked from a vote include broadband access, the gift ban, property tax reform, open primaries and tax incentives for affordable housing, MacLean said.

“Of 4,199 bills proposed in the 2019-2020 session, only 630 got any vote at all,” the organization notes, “and only 285 were enacted into law (mostly renaming bridges and creating special days of recognition). That made our legislature the most expensive in the country and 46th least productive.”

But MacLean says he and his allies in the #FixHarrisburg movement are “more hopeful than ever” that things will change for the better.

“Because of the redistricting and other factors, there are 35 open seats in the House of Representatives this cycle — one of those is House District 101, here in southern Lebanon County, where the incumbent Frank Ryan is retiring,” he said. “Whoever comes in will be new. Our view is that the new person has not been absorbed into business as usual. They will want to make a difference. They won’t want them to take away their power on the first day.”

MacLean’s former occupation might be influencing his sunny outlook, he admitted.

“When you’re a medical professional, you have to be optimistic. You have to be hopeful for people, you hope for the best,” he said. “The optimistic view is, you’ll have these 35 newbies coming in, excited and ready to change the world, and they’ll remind the old guard that, hey, this happened to you, too. You have bills that you want to advance for your constituents.

“Party loyalty is one thing, but giving away your power is another. All we need is a majority vote.”

Every legislator has “pet bills” that they’d like to see get a fair shot on the House or Senate floor, he noted.

“That doesn’t mean it will get a yes vote, but at least let there be a debate. That’s a start,” MacLean said.

“Hope springs eternal. People in public service are often very idealistic. They have great aspirations,” he added. “When people in public office realize they have broad support, that should embolden them.”

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Tom Knapp

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.