In recent weeks representatives of Fair Districts PA, along with leaders of allied advocate organizations, took part in extensive conversations regarding the Folmer amendment to Senate Bill 22, which would amend the state Constitution to create an independent citizens redistricting commission.
The outcome reflects the hard work all parties invested in this effort and highlights the challenge of compromise in the context of producing legislation that could garner enough votes to move out of committee.
While the amendment as passed does not represent the complete vision for which we aimed, it has strong safeguards to protect the independence of commissioners, strict rules for transparency, prohibitions against use of electoral data, constraints on splitting counties and municipalities, and mechanisms requiring broad buy-in among the commissioners for the final map.
Even though the General Assembly would have a role in the appointment process for the new Independent Redistricting Commission, we believe the essential principles necessary for the commission to operate independently of outside influences remain intact for several reasons:
There is a “fail-safe” provision whereby the General Assembly would vote on a limited number of options if the commission fails to act. But, FDPA is confident that a group of citizens willing to give up months of their lives to play such an important role in our Democracy - and NOT motivated by self-interest - will be able to find consensus.
While some of the details around eligibility have been deleted from the original SB 22, those issues would still be addressed in implementing legislation, which is quite common when the Constitution is amended. In fact, it is very unusual to have the level of detail that was in the original version of SB 22. For example, while the original version specified that lobbyists and some family members could not be included on the commission, the bill did not define the term lobbyist and it would be unusual if not unprecedented to define that term in the Constitution by reference to a statute that could change over time.
FDPA is very confident that the implementing legislation will include a ban on lobbyists, political party operatives, etc. In our negotiations with the Senate State Government Committee staff, all agreed that there was nothing objectionable about the specific eligibility exclusions, but all agreed that level of detail should not be in the Constitution.
In the California commission process, a model for Senate Bill 22, both independence and success of the commission were in large part due to extensive vetting of commission applicants, a process spelled out in great detail in implementing legislation and attendant regulation. Those were crafted as the commission was being formed. We would expect those details to be in place and open for review well before the final bill goes to public referendum.
As far as the negotiation process is concerned, representatives of FDPA, Common Cause, Committee of Seventy and League of Women Voters participated in negotiations that resulted in the amendment approved unanimously on May 22. These negotiations followed two well-attended public hearings. We have been very appreciative of the level of input we were allowed by Senator Mike Folmer and Majority Leader Jake Corman.
This is not the end of the process by any means. FDPA anticipates there will be additional amendments offered on the Senate floor as well as continued alterations as the bill moves through the House. FDPA will continue to push for the strongest bill possible in terms of independence and transparency, as well as criteria and constraints to be applied in drawing district lines.
Carol Kuniholm, Chair, Fair Districts PA