First-round debate begins on congressional redistricting plan

A proposed congressional redistricting plan that would split Douglas County between the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts did not advance from general file Sept. 17 after a failed cloture motion.

Currently, all of Douglas County is within the 2nd District, along with roughly the western two-thirds of Sarpy County.

LB1, introduced by the Redistricting Committee, would move much of northern Douglas County into the 1st District. The northeastern and southern parts of Douglas County would remain in the 2nd District along with all of Sarpy and Saunders counties.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the committee’s chairperson, said her proposed congressional map in LB1 is “not perfect” and that the committee will “have to go back to work and find out something we can all agree on” after the day’s debate.

But Linehan questioned why a competing plan that would continue to split Sarpy County was acceptable to some senators but hers was not.

That alternative proposal, offered by vice chairperson Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha in LB2, would leave Douglas County wholly within the 2nd District and move a portion of Bellevue into the district to meet population requirements.

As outlined in redistricting guidelines adopted by the Legislature last session in LR134, each of the state’s three U.S. House of Representatives districts are to be drawn with an overall population range of deviation of no more than 1 percent, with a goal of zero deviation.

“This is about being fair to everybody,” Linehan said. “To stand here and hear how Douglas County cannot be touched but … we can carve up Sarpy County every 10 years three different ways — it doesn’t make any sense.”

Among other requirements, LR134 also stipulates that boundaries follow county lines whenever practicable and, as far as possible, define districts that are easily identifiable and understandable to voters, preserve communities of interest and allow for the preservation of the core of prior districts.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said testimony at this week’s public hearings held in each congressional district indicated that “virtually no one is going to be happy with where we land” on various redistricting plans.

Briese said he supports LB1, however, because it would avoid splitting Sarpy County. At current growth rates, he said, Douglas County possibly could be too large to remain in a single congressional district when lawmakers next redraw district boundaries.

“Folks are going to have to get used to the idea of splitting up Douglas County here at some point,” Briese said.

Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements supported LB1 because it would move Cass and Otoe counties, which are primarily rural, out of the 1st District — which he said is dominated by Lincoln — and into the more rural 3rd District.

Also in support of Linehan’s proposal was Sen. John Arch of La Vista. He said fast-growing Sarpy County and its five major cities form a community of interest that should be within a single congressional district. In contrast, he said, LB2 would split Papillion, La Vista and Bellevue between congressional districts.

Arch questioned why Sarpy County should continue to be “carved up like a turkey” at the expense of keeping Douglas County intact, which he said contains several different communities of interest.

Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen opposed LB1, saying Sarpy County cities do not have more in common than do neighborhoods on either side of Dodge Street in Omaha. He introduced an amendment that would replace LB1 with Wayne’s congressional district plan outlined in LB2.

Several other senators who opposed LB1 said splitting Douglas County and Omaha between congressional districts would violate redistricting guidelines adopted in LR134.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said Douglas County has been the core of the 2nd District for more than a century and easily could be kept whole by including a portion of Sarpy County in the district, as in Wayne’s plan.

That approach would preserve Omaha’s municipal boundaries and result in a 2nd District that is more compact, he said.

Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh said the north-south boundary line in LB1 does not follow clearly defined boundaries in certain places but instead “juts across” Omaha, dividing neighborhoods and other communities of interest. He said this would make it unnecessarily difficult for voters to identify the congressional district in which they live.

“If your backyard neighbor is in a different congressional district than you are,” Cavanaugh said, “I would question whether that is clearly understandable to voters.”

Sen. Steve Lathop of Omaha called LB1 a “nonstarter.” He said the testimony in a Sept. 16 public hearing was “overwhelmingly” critical of splitting Omaha and Douglas County.

“If we’re going to go out and listen to people,” Lathrop said, “we ought to incorporate their opinions into what we are doing here.”

Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue characterized LB1 as a “starting point.” She introduced an amendment, which she later withdrew, that would require all of Sarpy County to be included in the 1st District and all of Douglas County in the 2nd.

“There’s more than one way to keep Sarpy County whole,” Blood said.

Wayne said at least two counties would be split in any congressional redistricting plan, but Sarpy and Douglas counties could remain whole in certain scenarios.

“It’s mathematically impossible to get to the deviation [requirement] without splitting something,” he said.

If lawmakers move Sarpy County into the 1st District along with Lancaster County, he said, some counties currently in that district — such as Cass, Madison, Platte or Saunders — would have to be shifted to the 3rd District to equalize district populations.

After eight hours of general file debate, Linehan filed a motion to invoke cloture, which ceases debate and forces a vote on a bill. The motion failed on a vote of 29-17. Thirty-three votes were needed.

A failed cloture motion ends debate on a bill for the day. The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene Sept. 20.

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