It's not too soon to start reforming the way Pennsylvania handles legislative redistricting. The next federal census is three years away in 2010. The census is the catalyst for the redrawing of boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts to reflect population changes.

As state lawmakers welcomed a bumper class of newcomers and elected House new leadership teams, there was talk of reform in the air. House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, said his Democratic colleagues are interested in pursuing redistricting reform and campaign finance reform.

Whether this talk is serious remains to be seen.

But DeWeese’s acknowledgment that redistricting reform should at least be on the agenda for consideration in the new legislative session is welcome.

First of all, Pennsylvania needs a process that puts demographics and community interests ahead of partisan politics and protection of incumbents.

The current system of using a leadership-controlled process to draw a new map for the 253 legislative districts and reconfigure congressional districts favors the latter two criteria.

In 2001, a special commission of the four legislative leaders and a fifth “neutral” chairman oversaw legislative reapportionment. The General Assembly passed a leadership-sponsored bill to redraw congressional boundaries.

The 2001 map is noteworthy for an odd serpent-shaped congressional district in western Pennsylvania and the creative stringing together of city wards in a Philadelphia district to buttress House Speaker John Perzel’s electoral prospects.

Some reformers suggest the job be given to a special independent bipartisan bureau with instructions to address such factors as population growth, keeping economic and social interests together and keeping municipal boundaries intact when drawing district boundaries. The bureau would be instructed to disregard an incumbent’s home address when drawing district boundaries.

Such a wholesale change involves amending the state Constitution. This is a cumbersome process involving passage of legislation in two consecutive legislative sessions and a voter referendum. So some lawmaker better start the ball rolling in 2007 if Pennsylvania is serious about changing the process.

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