While much has been written and said recently about the way Pennsylvania's legislative districts are drawn, a major concern has been absent from most of the discussion: the possible impact that proposed changes could have on minority representation in the Commonwealth, especially in western Pennsylvania.
I am deeply concerned with the impact such legislation would have on the representation of African Americans and other people of color at the state level. Regrettably, the 253-member Pennsylvania General Assembly only has 21 African American and Latino elected officials — 17 in the House of Representatives and four in the state Senate. Of those members, only three come from outside of the city of Philadelphia.
According to U.S. Census estimates for 2006, if the General Assembly's demographics matched those of the people we represent, instead of 21 African American and Latino legislators, there would be 36. I do not expect an exact match, but these statistics must at a minimum raise concerns.
To date, I have heard nothing about allowing whoever draws the districts even to consider these types of factors.
As drafted, the main redistricting bill being touted as "reform," House Bill 2420, would provide for absolutely no latitude to ensure that minority families and interests are adequately represented. Given the magnitude of this issue, I believe many questions must be addressed. For example, what would be the short- and long-term impact of this bill on African Americans, Latinos and other minority residents as well as disadvantaged communities that are underrepresented?
As has been widely reported, the House State Government Committee pulled House Bill 2420 from its May 29 meeting agenda. The bill would transfer the responsibility of drawing of legislative districts to the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), the nonpartisan office that converts legislators' proposals into legal language for House and Senate members of both parties. However, the bureau's director has publicly voiced his concerns about the possibility of jeopardizing the LRB's nonpartisan mission and reputation. Consequently, the committee chairwoman felt it inappropriate to simply rubber-stamp what she believes to be flawed legislation.
The potential partisanship of the Legislative Reference Bureau appears to be just one of this bill's flaws. Clearly, there may be more, and they must be thoroughly researched before a measure as important and far-reaching as this is considered on the floor of the House. That is part of the committee process: to study and identify the problems and merits of legislation. Based on what we know so far, it is my opinion that House Bill 2420 would create more problems than solutions.
State Rep. Jake Wheatley