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Leaders deadlock on final member of district-drawing panel

April 30, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Republican and Democratic floor leaders of the Pennsylvania House and Senate said Friday they could not agree who should be the tie-breaking fifth member of the panel that will redraw the state’s legislative district lines.

The announcement means the chairperson of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will be selected by the state Supreme Court, which currently has a 5-2 Democratic majority.

The four floor leaders told Chief Justice Max Baer in a letter that they were “unable to find consensus” after interviewing dozens of applicants. They wrote Baer on the 45th and final day they had to choose their own chairperson. The justices now have a month to pick one for them.

The joint letter from Republican leaders Sen. Kim Ward of Westmoreland County and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County, and Democratic leaders Sen. Jay Costa and Rep. Joanna McClinton’s suggests what criteria the court should use.

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They asked the justices to pick someone who will be a “fair and neutral arbiter” who has “some distance from the political process” and who has no interest in running for a seat in the Legislature. They said the chair should “be several years removed from engaging in the political process and should not have been involved in lobbying recently at any level of government.

“Simply put, a chair should possess the qualifications that would enable them to resolve disagreements in a fair and transparent manner,” the four leaders wrote.

The 253-member General Assembly currently has significant Republican majorities in both chambers, and for several decades, the tie-breaking member of the redistricting commission has been chosen by Republican-majority supreme courts.

In comparison, congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania is done as regulator legislation, so it must pass both chambers of the Legislature and be signed by the governor.

Democrats on the high court put a legal challenge to the state’s 2011 congressional district map on a fast track, then voted to declare it violated the state constitution’s guarantee of free and equal elections. The Democratic justices then enacted their own map, and in the 2018 election, what had been the GOP’s 13-5 edge in the U.S. Congressional delegation became a 9-9 tie.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn the decision. In November, all 18 of those incumbents sought reelection, all 18 had opponents and all 18 were reelected. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pennsylvania, but both parties have had significant statewide electoral wins in recent years.

Census numbers released Monday mean Pennsylvania, the nation’s fifth-most populous state, will lose a congressional seat in next year’s elections.