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What Voters Should Know about the PA State Legislature

Alisher Aminov

The system of government used in Pennsylvania resembles the federal government. The document that outlines how Pennsylvania’s state government works is called a constitution.

The Constitution of Pennsylvania outlines the system of government that Pennsylvania, as an independent commonwealth, uses.

Like the federal government, Pennsylvania has three branches: the Executive (Governor), the Legislative (House of Representatives/Senate), and the Judicial (Supreme Court); however, the way these three branches work is slightly different.

Similar to how the legislative branch works on the federal level, we have two legislative houses – the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania State Senate. Pennsylvania’s Legislature is called the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

The House of Representatives in Pennsylvania has 203 members that represent the 203 house districts in PA. Pennsylvania’s State Constitution sets this number.

Pennsylvania’s State Senate has 50 members representing Pennsylvania’s 50 senate districts. Pennsylvania’s State Constitution sets this number, as well.

The House of Representatives, similar to the national level, is designed to represent smaller districts within the State to ensure that both small and large communities have adequate representation in Pennsylvania’s State Legislature.

In comparison, Pennsylvania’s State Senate is much smaller. Like the Senate on the national level, the PA State Senate is designed to represent more extensive land areas; however, unlike the U.S. Senate, Pennsylvania Senate Districts are based equally on population size.

For example, on the National level, a small state such as Rhode Island has the same number of Senators as a larger one like Texas; however, this is not the case in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, each State House District is supposed to have approximately 64,000 people. Each State Senate District is to have roughly 260,000.

In comparison to other states, the Legislative Branch in Pennsylvania is the second largest in the nation (behind New Hampshire). However, because state representatives in New Hampshire are part-time, Pennsylvania has the largest full-time Legislature in the United States.

Additionally, compared to other states, members of the Pennsylvania State Legislature (Pennsylvania General Assembly) make the third-highest salary in the nation, making $90,335 per year (California is first and New York is Second). They also receive a mostly tax-free daily per diems that do not require receipts (totaling more than $1.5 million in 2021 alone).

It is also important to note that the while the Constitution of Pennsylvania says that a member of Pennsylvania’s State Legislature may not hold any other job in the government, it does not prohibit PA State Representatives or PA State Senators from having/running private businesses or maintaining outside employment apart from their elected posts – while simultaneously representing Pennsylvanian’s full-time.

Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that does not have a fixed number of legislative sessions (days legislators have to be at work). Instead, the Legislature convenes between the first Monday of January to November 30th; however, Pennsylvania’s State Constitution does not mandate how many sessions the Legislature must have during that time.

PA State House and Senate Districts change every ten years. The majority and minority leaders of both State House and Senate and one member that is not part of either chamber are tasked with reviewing and proposing district maps for the State. The two chambers then vote on a proposed district map which is then either signed or vetoed by the governor.

If the Legislature and the Governor agree upon no proposed district map, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court makes the final determination.

The legislative branch’s role in Pennsylvania is very similar to its counterpart on the national level. Both the State House and State Senate have sub-committees directed toward specific areas of government – the State House has 28 committees, and the State Senate has 22.

In these committees, State Legislators propose various pieces of legislation, which, if passed, go to a vote for all Representatives or Senators, depending on the house.

In the 2019-2020 legislative session, 4,199 bills were introduced during committee; however, 3,645 of them “died” before ever reaching the chamber’s floor for a vote.

One reason why so many bills die in committee is a provision outlined in Pennsylvania’s State Constitution, which gives both the State House and State Senate the ability to set new rules in each chamber at the beginning of each new session, which is each new year.

Currently, one rule that has passed consistently is a provision that gives committee chairs (heads) the ability to kill any bill immediately upon introduction that they do not like or agree with – this is different than the national level.

The State Legislature (like the U.S. Legislature) is also tasked with developing and voting upon the state budget.

Additionally, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly (legislative branch) can amend Pennsylvania’s State Constitution. While amending the U.S. Constitution is very difficult and rarely happens, amending Pennsylvania’s State Constitution is much easier because there are fewer people in the State.

For the State Constitution to be amended, an amendment must pass through both legislative houses by a simple majority during two legislative sessions and be published in two media publications in every county in between. This means PA Constitutional Amendments need to be voted on twice by each house and passed between two State elections.

If an amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution passes both Legislative Houses twice, it goes for a vote as a referendum on Pennsylvania’s ballot during the next state election -meaning Pennsylvania voters vote whether or not the amendment should pass.

Pennsylvania’s legislative branch can also call for an emergency amendment if both chambers pass the amendment with a 2/3rds majority vote. When this happens, the amendment immediately goes to a referendum for the public’s vote.

For Pennsylvanians, the State Legislature is incredibly important!

The laws passed or discarded by the Pennsylvania General Assembly (state legislative branch) directly impact Pennsylvania’s residents. Issues such as infrastructure, agriculture, energy, education, and so on are often influenced more by state legislatures than they are by the federal government that designates blocks of funding for broad areas and leaves the ultimate decision making for funding allocation to the States.

To find out which Pennsylvania House and Senate district you live in and who your PA State Representatives and Senators are, click here.

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