Independent redistricting commission advanced

The Legislature’s redistricting process would include the help of an independent commission under a bill given first-round approval April 4.

Currently, the Legislature is responsible for drawing new governmental boundaries every 10 years after the decennial census for districts pertaining to the U.S. House of Representatives, the Legislature, Public Service Commission, University of Nebraska Board of Regents and the state Board of Education.

LB580, introduced by Gretna Sen. John Murante, would create the Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission to assist in the process beginning in 2021.

Calling the measure the best redistricting model in the nation, Murante said LB580 is the result of several years worth of research into how to effectively draw Nebraska’s district lines. He said a citizen-run process that is subject to final legislative approval would increase public confidence in the process.

“This is the best I think that we can do,” he said. “It doesn’t eliminate partisanship—it isn’t perfect—but it does minimize partisanship and it encourages public trust.”

An Executive Board amendment, adopted 26-1, replaced the bill.

As amended, the commission would be established by Jan. 30 of each redistricting year. Each of the three legislative caucuses would appoint three people to serve on the commission, with no more than five members of the commission with the same political party affiliation.

To be eligible for service on the commission, a person must be a Nebraska resident and a registered voter who, at the time of appointment, had not changed political party affiliation within the previous 24 months.

Residents registered as lobbyists within the previous 12 months, public officials, candidates for elective office and those holding a political party office in Nebraska or the United States would not be eligible. Also ineligible would be an individual who is a relative of or employed by a member of Congress or the Legislature, a constitutional officer or an employee of the University of Nebraska.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello supported the measure, which he said was necessary following the tumultuous redistricting undertaken in 2011. The bill would provide a more transparent process that would focus on the public interest and not be driven primarily by partisan or political interests, he said.

“We tried to build what we thought was a process that works for the Legislature and a process that works for the public,” he said.

Under the bill, the following would be delivered to the Legislature no later than 30 days after the census data is received:
• final maps illustrating each of the six redistricting plans adopted by the commission;
• any corresponding public hearing reports;
• a summary of differences between any of the redistricting plans adopted by the commission and the corresponding base maps developed by the research office; and
• formal opinions from the secretary of state and the attorney general regarding the constitutionality of the maps.

The chairperson of the Executive Board would introduce a bill for each redistricting plan adopted by the commission within two days of delivery of the final maps. The bills would be placed directly on general file.

If any of the bills fail, do not pass or are vetoed by the governor, a new redistricting plan would be prepared.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln spoke in support of the bill, calling the 2011 redistricting one of the most partisan and rancorous processes that she has witnessed in her time at the Legislature.

“The current system that we have does not work,” she said. “[This bill] is an excellent step forward to make sure that maps are drawn for the benefit of all Nebraskans.”

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner opposed the bill, saying senators should not “hand off” their responsibility to draw district lines to an unelected commission. While redistricting decisions may be contentious, he said, lawmakers should be the ones to draw the lines.

“We didn’t elect a computer to do that,” he said. “People elected me because they knew where I stood.”

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins agreed, saying other issues—such as last year’s vote to repeal the state’s death penalty—have been just as contentious as redistricting.

“This is not a bill in my mind to prevent contention in [the Legislature], but more a bill to protect both political parties,” he said.

Murante said senators still would have the final say on any maps drawn.

“The Legislature isn’t giving away any authority,” he said.

Following adoption of a technical amendment on a 26-1 vote, lawmakers advanced the bill 30-5.

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