FILE Joe Scarnati Mike Turzai Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania's Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Gov. Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania’s simmering dispute over legislative redistricting and gerrymandering erupted into a full boil once again Thursday afternoon.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who supported the state Supreme Court’s decision early this year to throw out the existing congressional maps, announced Thursday that’s he’s formed a new commission to look at the issue of redistricting reform.

“The purpose of the Commission is to study best practices related to non-partisan redistricting process, engage the public in a dialogue around principles for a non-partisan redistricting process, and make recommendations to the Governor [and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders] to inform the redistricting process,” Wolf’s executive order reads.

Wolf’s move drew immediate criticism from prominent Republican lawmakers.

In a news release announcing the order, Wolf revealed that he had already selected a chairman and 10 other members for the commission, which is to include both lawmakers and outside experts. Picked to lead the panel is David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the nonprofit Committee of Seventy, a voting rights organization based in Philadelphia.

“This commission will bring together diverse experts and citizens to explore ways that Pennsylvania could use policies, technology and data to curb gerrymandering and ensure fair maps,” Wolf said in the news release. “There has been significant bipartisan support for bringing more fairness to this process. The goal of this commission is to hear from experts and citizens about what can be done to make this process more fair. The redistricting process should ensure every citizen’s voice is heard in our democratic process.”

Republican lawmakers filed a series of federal lawsuits in the first half of the year trying to stop the Supreme Court from invalidating the old map and imposing new one. A joint statement from House and Senate leaders, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai, accused Wolf of usurping the Legislature’s authority by creating the commission.

“With no input from the General Assembly, the Governor issued an Executive Order where he turned his back on both the state and federal constitutions and embarked on another go-it-alone strategy,” the joint statement reads. “The Governor has created a Commission that ignores large swaths of the Commonwealth, specifically rural communities, and charged Commission members with a responsibility that he does not have the authority to give.”

The statement goes on to note that both the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution specify that drawing legislative boundaries is the sole responsibility of lawmakers, not the executive branch.

“This spectacle only serves as a distraction to the work the legislature has been doing to examine the redistricting process in Pennsylvania,” the statement says. “We will not be props in his theater that is an attempt to be a make-shift alternative to the federal and state constitutions and will have no practical effect. The fact remains that under the constitutions, the responsibility for redistricting falls to the General Assembly.”

The Pennsylvania Senate in June passed legislation, Senate Bill 22, that would have established a new redistricting process in time to be used in conjunction with the 2020 U.S. Census. But the legislation was never brought for a vote in the state House of Representatives, leading to the unusual step of Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman sending a letter to Turzai in July urging him to bring the bill up for a vote in the House.

But Turzai didn’t heed their advice, and with SB22 due to evaporate with the onset of the new legislative session in 2019, lawmakers will be back at square one when it comes to rethinking the mapmaking process last used in 2011 – the same process that generated the congressional map that was later thrown out by the state Supreme Court as an unconstitutional gerrymander favoring Republicans.

Dave Lemery is the Pennsylvania & New Hampshire News Editor for Watchdog.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dave at dlemery@watchdog.org.

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.