2012-06-14 / Local & State

Pa. Panel Approves A Second Redistricting Plan

By Marc Levy

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A Democratic state senator will absorb a huge swath of bedrock Republican territory north of Pittsburgh while the city of Harrisburg will remain in its current Senate district under a revised GOPsponsored plan that a fivemember panel approved Friday.

However, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, bitterly criticized the plan approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, and did not rule out another state Supreme Court challenge like the ones that brought down the first Republican drawn map in January.

“I’m very disappointed,” Costa said. “I mean, this process has been going on for almost a year and-a-half and we actually are where we started from.”

Chief among his complaints were the changes that will bring a significant Republican makeup to the 38th District seat held by Democrat Jim Ferlo of Pittsburgh. Costa also complained that the plan drawn by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, split 10 counties strictly to help sitting Republican senators improve their electoral chances.

Pileggi insisted the plan squarely responds to the Supreme Court’s complaints – for instance, that three particular Senate districts had been given unusual and unwieldy shapes – and that his plan includes splits in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that Costa had specifically requested.

Meanwhile, it reduces the overall number of county splits to 53 from 79 in the current districts and 67 in the plan struck down by the court, Pileggi’s office said.

The panel is handling the once-a-decade task of redrawing the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts to address population shifts identified by the census. It includes Pileggi, Costa, the House Democratic and Republican floor leaders and a senior Superior Court judge, Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the Republican-tilting Supreme Court.

Amanda Holt, an Allentown area piano teacher whose alternative homemade maps helped persuade the high court to throw out the previous set of maps, questioned the rationale for the splits in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Senate districts that, she said, don’t appear to be contiguous.

“It doesn’t seem like our constitution is really being put first in this process,” she said after the panel’s vote.

A House plan that moves five seats and reduces the number of municipal splits was uncontested. The pair of maps were approved, 4-1, with Costa casting the lone “no” vote.

The plans will take effect with the 2014 elections. The redrawing process began last year and was supposed to produce new districts to take effect with this year’s elections. But that was scuttled by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the panel’s first plan, saying it split too many municipalities and invented unnecessarily strange shapes for too many districts.

The approved plan keeps a change in a preliminary proposal the panel advanced in early April to move the suburban Pittsburgh seat of the recently resigned and jailed Jane Orie across the state to the fast growing Pocono Mountains region in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Pileggi had initially tried to move the seat of a sitting Democrat from the Pittsburgh area, which shrank in population since the 2000 census, but he lost out to a plan by McEwen to move Orie’s former seat, which is currently vacant.

Some changes in Pileggi’s plan approved Friday were driven by public comments on the April proposal. The biggest changes address complaints that the April plan would have shifted the homes of three Senate candidates – two running for the seat being vacated by retiring Allegheny County Sen. John Pippy and one running for the Harrisburg-area seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jeffrey Piccola – out of the districts they could soon represent.

As a result, Pippy’s 37th District would remain largely in place west of Pittsburgh, instead of shifting to absorb Orie’s former territory in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs. Now, Ferlo’s district shifts north from the city of Pittsburgh to include that heavily Republican area north of the city and raises the prospect of a tough reelection battle in 2014 for the third-term Democrat with Orie’s successor, who will be picked in a special election Aug. 7.

Meanwhile, the approved plan backed off of Pileggi’s earlier proposal to shift the heavily Democratic city of Harrisburg into the Republican dominated 48th District based around Lebanon County.

Now, the city and some of its suburbs will remain in Piccola’s 15th District that has historically represented it. Still, Costa complained that the 15th will be unnecessarily redrawn again – it will gain heavily Republican Perry County and lose some of its other Democratic-leaning suburbs to the 48th District – to favor a Republican.

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