Redistricting madness leaves elections in confusion

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Court’s decision, Justices’ junket to Puerto Rico means no one knows exactly what comes next

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
You can’t make this stuff up.

Just when we thought that redrawing the lines on Pennsylvania’s election-district lines couldn’t get sillier, events went into the truly surreal this week.

For those of you catching up, the state Supreme Court tossed out the redistricting plan developed by legislative leaders, suggesting that by splitting municipalities it violated the state Constitution. Better yet, they didn’t really offer a road map going forward — and being that candidates had already begun gathering signatures based on the new districts, no one seemed to know which lines would apply for 2012.

Helpfully, half of the court, justices Max Baer, Ron Castile and Michael Eakin fled for a junket to Puerto Rico, without offering anything in terms of guidance on how to proceed. Evidently, those lovely drinks with the umbrellas rated over insuring that the commonwealth gets anything like a fair election.

It gets better.

Baer, I guess trying to be helpful, actually granted an interview, and said the issues with the new map couldn’t be resolved in time for the 2012 elections, so it was likely that the old districts would be used, although even he didn’t rule out using a version of the new lines. And while it’s nice that Baer was trying to helpful pointing the way forward a week or so before the formal ruling would be put out, the state Republican Party is hopping mad.

“While the rest of Pennsylvania anxiously awaits the Court’s opinion on redistricting, Justice Baer decided to provide his own commentary on the matter, violating both Judicial Canon and the Pennsylvania Constitution in the process,”  said Pennsylvania GOP Executive Director Mike Barley in a statement. “The fact that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge would make politically-motivated comments to the press on a pending court proceeding is absolutely outrageous, especially since the court’s official opinion on the matter has not yet been released.  Justice Baer’s comments are more than just an abdication of his judicial responsibilities; they are in direct contravention of both the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct and the Pennsylvania Constitution. Justice Bear should be reprimanded for his poor judgment and recuse himself from any judicial activity related to this matter.”

Easy, fella. Just for those of you keeping score at home, the map is pretty lousy, splitting West Chester, Phoenixville and other municipalities without any really compelling need — beyond politics, of course. So, technically, the map does utterly violate the state Constitution.

But before the Democrats — whose litigation sparked this court decision — suffer from injuries for patting themselves in the back, a few fun facts: this map is only marginally worse than the 2001 map (which also split municipalities — East Bradford is a prime example locally) and thanks to this decision, Chester County residents will be clearly under represented for at least two more years, assuming the old maps have to get used for one more cycle, even as we send more money to Harrisburg and see less and less come back.

Worse, the Congressional maps, which are an order of magnitude worse, had loads of Democratic support in the state legislature. Hypocrisy, anyone?

So, just be clear, the Republicans got caught fixing the game, and the Democrats cried foul, but…only sorta, because this time, it happened to be convenient. It’s little bit like pressing charges on a speeding ticket, but ignoring the hit and run.

Fabulous.

And so here we are. Pennsylvania is increasingly a laughing stock and now we can’t figure out who can run or vote for the state legislature. The major political parties point fingers at each other, while almost half of the Supreme Court, the only body that offer a path forward, is busy touring the Barcardi factory or lying, oh, I meant tanning, on a beach.

The local impact? Pocopson and Newlin revert back to their previous state rep. and state senate districts. Maybe. And yes, I can hear the cheering in some quarters of Pocopson, where the old state rep., Steve Barrar, is a lot more popular than the new/old state rep., Chris Ross.

The would-be intra-party fight that would have pitted state Sen. Andy Dinniman against former State Rep. Tom Houghton would appear to be off (but, oh man, are there hard feelings) and Houghton won’t say now whether he’ll re-pivot to run against Pileggi, which had been his plan until the redistricting plan came out.

And of course — Pileggi seen by many as the architect of the redistricting plan (he sat on the five-member commission and according to many accounts drove the process) now finds himself as something like the captain of the Costa Concord — the Italian cruise ship sitting on its side. People are going to be rightly asking whether he just blindly put politics above the good of the commonwealth and it seems a fair question to ask given the current circumstances.

It seems likely that those questions could get asked, and soon with Unionville’s Roger Howard, with what appears to be local Tea Party backing, taking on the Harrisburg power player.

* * *

Zero drama Monday night when the Board of Education adopted a preliminary budget calling for a 3.71% tax increase in Chester County (Delaware County is actually seeing a drop, thanks to the relative property values between the counties).

Okay, not just zero drama, but zero discussion, which was a bit of a surprise. So much so that it became an ethical issue for me on how to report on it. Reporting on it in a manner of fact way is three sentences, not really enough for a news story. Reporting on the lack of discussion seemed a little bit like inventing the news, so I decided just to hold it off to this column, where I could more ethically put it in perspective.

Clearly, the discussion about the budget is only just starting — and as we saw last year, January talks rarely reflect June realities. And any numbers go out the window if Gov. Tom Corbett again attempts to take a meat axe to public education funding.

Obviously, there will be a push by some on the board to take the tax increase down as close to the Act 1 limit (a 1.7% increase) as possible, although there isn’t anything like a majority on the board supporting that — since it would mean about $700,000 in cuts and further staff layoffs. That having been said, I do think this board will look for a few more trims in the budget and look to slide the hike down to around 3.0%, which incidentally exactly matches the Consumer Price Index increase for 2011 and below the Cost of Living Adjustment given to those on Social Security, which was 3.6%.

And while such a cut means whacking about $200,000 out of the existing budget, assuming state funding numbers hold, that’s probably manageable, although challenging to be certain.

* * *

Don’t forget to put your books out today for the Unionville High School Used Book Sale! Drivers will be going around local neighborhoods picking up your book donations, so make you put them out.

Book Sale organizers expect to collect some 80,000 books this year.

A quick reminder: the sale takes place on Feb. 24 and 25, so make sure to put those dates in your calendars.

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