Shrinking the Legislature

Thank you, Chairman Scarnati, and members of the Senate Majority Policy Committee for the opportunity to testify before you today on the issue of whether or not Pennsylvania should reduce the size its legislature.

My name is Nathan Benefield; I am a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy research organization in Harrisburg.

At 253 Members, Pennsylvania has the 2nd largest state legislature, trailing only New Hampshire’s 424 members. However, as you all know, New Hampshire is theepitome of a citizen legislature, where members receive only $100 per year for their part-time service.

In addition to being the largest full-time legislature in the nation, Pennsylvania is among themost highly “professionalized” legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This takes into account legislative pay, number of days in session, and staff per legislator.

In terms of compensation, Pennsylvania legislators are the 4th highest paid among the 50 states (trailing California, Michigan, and New York, as of 2005). Pennsylvania has the 2nd most legislative staff (after New York, as of 2003) with over 11.6 staff per member, which represents an increase of 106% since 1978. Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states with a full-time legislature.

The combination of these factors makes Pennsylvania’s General Assembly the most expensive legislature to operate. In terms of dollars, the 2006-07 budget appropriated $341 million for the operations of the House, Senate, and legislative support services, up from $88 million in 1984-85—an increase of 101% after adjusting for inflation.

Therefore it is no surprise that in this new reform environment, there are proposals such as Sen. Pippy’s Senate Bill 890 that would reduce the size of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly by 40% from 203 House members to 123, and from 50 Senators to 30.

At the Commonwealth Foundation, we analyzed the merits of this proposal and are pleased to provide you with our perspective.

Our conclusion is that reducing the size of the Pennsylvania General Assembly could impact three areas of state government operations: First, it could lead to a reduction in the cost of the legislature. Second, it could provide greater accountability and transparency in legislative processes. And finally, it could bring about different public policy outcomes.

We emphasize could becausereducing the size of the legislature on its own—as a stand-alone reform—will not likely improve state government efficiency or effectiveness. In and of itself, this structural change would only have a minimal effect on any of these measures. The potential benefit, however, is that a smaller legislature may make it easier to adopt and implement more substantive legislative reforms.

Many proponents suggest that a smaller legislature will cost taxpayers less money. But barring other reforms, these savings will likely be minimal. The operating cost of the General Assembly, though large, represents only a small portion of the Commonwealth’s $55 billion operating budget. Additionally, reducing the number of legislators would not automatically result in an equal reduction in either direct or indirect costs.

Indeed, if the number of legislators were reduced by 40%, and the legislative budget was also reduced by 40% (which is unlikely), the savings would amount to approximately $40 per family of four in Pennsylvania. This is not totally insignificant, of course, but far greater savings can be achieved through other, more substantive cost-cutting policy changes and reforms.

The second area of possible impact is in legislative accountability and transparency. We feel that a smaller legislature could be a piece in a set of broader reforms. Reducing the size of the legislature (and making larger legislative districts) could result in greater accountability and transparency by leading to the adoption and implementation of more substantive reform measures. A smaller legislature may increase the chances of making the legislative process more open, transparent, and independent of special interests.

There are potential downsides, however, including a reduction in the attention an elected official can pay to a larger number of constituents, and the possibility of further concentrating power in the hands of a few legislative leaders. For these reasons, we emphasize that reducing the size of the legislature can only lead to increased accountability and transparency if it is complemented with other critical reforms.

Finally, the potential impact of reducing the size of the General Assembly on policy outcomes is unclear. A number of academic studies comparing state legislative size to policy measures reach different conclusions—some find that states with smaller legislatures spend less per-capita than states with large legislatures; while other studies conclude that larger constituent size results in more spending (thus shrinking the legislature would lead to more state spending). There is no clear evidence linking legislative size with other measures of state policy, such as economic freedom or tax burden.

Several studies, however, have found that state spending, tax burden, and economic freedom vary much more closely with legislative “professionalization” than size. The number of staff per lawmaker, the pay of lawmakers, and the time in session have a strong correlation with the level of spending, taxes, and regulations enacted by state government. States with highly professionalized legislatures spend more per-capita, have a higher tax burden, and have a higher, more burdensome level of regulation than states with part-time, citizen-led legislatures. Thus, reforms that move Pennsylvania away from a full-time, professional legislature will have a greater impact on policy outcomes than simply reducing the number of members.

I have qualified the Commonwealth Foundation’s support of reducing the size of legislature to needing additional, more substantive reforms. Some of the measures we believe are critical to restoring the integrity and functionality of the Pennsylvania General Assembly include:

  • Lobbyist Disclosure: Pennsylvanians should be able to know who, what, when, where and how lobbyists are attempting to shape public policy in Harrisburg. Lobbyist disclosure laws crafted by lobbyists should be rejected as unnacceptable. There are 49 states that have laws from which we can pick and choose the best practices.
  • Over in October: The practice of voting on important legislation during a lame-duck session (sine die) should be discontinued. Both houses of the General Assembly should end the legislative session before the November elections.
  • Open Records: The General Assembly and each of its members should be required to fully comply with the Open Records law to the same degree and detail as required of executive agencies.
  • Voting Records: All votes by individual legislators—including committee votes, procedural votes, and votes on amendment and final passage—should be made available online within 24 hours.
  • Level the Playing Field: Eliminate the use of taxpayer money for campaign advertising that is thinly veiled as “public service announcements” and other taxpayer-funded resources that only benefit incumbents.
  • Limited Terms: Pennsylvania currently limits the number of terms the governor can serve. Similar limits should be placed on the General Assembly.
  • Limited Sessions: Pennsylvania is among only a handful of “full-time” state legislatures with unlimited number of session days. Limiting the number of session days, coupled with limited terms, will return Pennsylvania to a citizen-led legislature.
  • Compensation and Benefits: The ideals of “public service” should be restored through a reassessment of the compensation and benefits provided to public servants. At the very least, these remunerations should be brought into line with the private sector.

In summary, our analysis suggests that a reduction in the size of the Pennsylvania GeneralAssembly could improve the lawmaking process, but only if it includes other, more comprehensive reforms such as those I just outlined. We, at the Commonwealth Foundation, would be pleased to work with you on any of these good government reform measures.

This concludes my testimony. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to try to answer any questions from the committee.


Nathan A. Benefield is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.