Independent redistricting commission proposed

The Legislature would once again consider including the help of an independent commission in the redistricting process under a bill heard by the Executive Board Jan. 30.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist08' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Burke Harr'>Sen. Burke Harr</a>
Sen. Burke Harr

Lawmakers passed a bill creating an independent citizen advisory commission during the 2016 session, which was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

LB216, introduced by Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, represents another attempt to create the Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission to assist in the process beginning in 2021.

Harr said the measure would address concerns raised by the governor last year, including the removal — in the interest of separation of powers — of required formal opinions from the state attorney general and secretary of state regarding the constitutionality of proposed maps.

“While those opinions are nice, I’m not sure that they are necessary and I agree with the governor that they are on questionable constitutional ground,” Harr said.

Under the bill, the commission would be established by Jan. 30 of each redistricting year. Each of the three legislative caucuses would appoint two people to serve on the commission, with no more than three members having 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, has 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.

The director of the Legislative Research Office would use census data to assign an ideal district population to each type of district and develop base maps for the commission to use in developing redistricting plans.

The office director, serving as liaison between the commission and the Executive Board, would deliver the following to the Legislature:
• final maps illustrating each of the six redistricting plans adopted by the commission;
• any corresponding public hearing reports; and
• a summary of differences between any of the redistricting plans adopted by the commission and the corresponding base maps developed by the research office.

The chairperson of the Executive Board then 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.

Within five legislative days, if any of the bills fail, do not pass or are vetoed by the governor, a new redistricting plan would be prepared.

Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, testified in support of the bill. Concerns about the current redistricting system indicate that reform is needed, he said, and establishing an independent commission would enhance the work of lawmakers, not replace it.

“Whatever the commission does will fall to the Legislature,” Geis said. “This [process] can be thrown out if it doesn’t work — it can be amended if it doesn’t work.”

Attorney Steve Grasz testified in opposition, saying the commission would be an improper delegation of legislative authority. The state constitution requires that legislators do the work of redistricting, he said.

“Under LB216 the advisory commission rather than state senators draft redistricting plans and they go directly to general file,” Grasz said, essentially placing lawmaking authority with the commission rather than state senators.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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