Congressional, legislative redistricting plans advance

Senators continued their redistricting work by amending and advancing two bills May 19 that would redraw the state’s congressional and legislative district boundaries.

The Legislature is responsible for drawing governmental boundaries every 10 years after the decennial census for districts pertaining to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Legislature.

Guidelines

Under guidelines adopted by lawmakers earlier this session, individual districts may vary in size from the ideal population within allowable limits. The resolution calls for congressional districts to be drawn with an overall population range of deviation of no more than 1 percent, with a goal of zero deviation. The remaining districts are to be drawn with an overall range of deviation of no more than 10 percent and no district is to deviate from the ideal population by more than plus or minus 5 percent.

Districts are to follow county lines whenever practicable and form districts that are compact and contiguous. The requirement of following county lines may be waived if it causes a redistricting plan to fall out of compliance with constitutional case law established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Districts are to be easily identifiable, understandable and should preserve the core of prior districts.

When possible, district lines are to follow boundaries of cities and villages and are not to be drawn to favor a political party or any other group or person. In addition, no consideration in drawing boundaries is to be given to the political party affiliations of registered voters, demographic information other than population figures or results of previous elections except as required by law.

District boundaries cannot unlawfully dilute the voting strength of any minority population.

Congressional districts

Nebraska remains entitled to three congressional districts. Under the Redistricting Committee’s initial proposal, LB704, Congressional District 1 would have a population of 608,781. The two remaining districts would have populations of 608,780 each.

The committee offered an amendment, adopted 30-11, that would alter these numbers by approximately 250 individuals, increasing the overall population deviation from zero to 0.06 percent.

Schuyler Sen. Chris Langemeier, chairperson of the committee, said the change reflected the committee’s effort to place all of Merrick County in Congressional District 3 and to avoid dividing the town of Silver Creek. Under the initial proposal, a small portion of Merrick County was placed in District 1.

The main change in the committee’s proposal would place the city of Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base in Congressional District 1. The cities of Papillion and La Vista, also in Sarpy County, would be placed in Congressional District 2.

Langemeier said the committee’s rationale in regard to Sarpy County was to keep whole as many cities as possible rather than divide them between districts.

But Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha said the change would violate the redistricting principle of maintaining the core of existing districts. She said it was clear from testimony at the May 13 public hearing on LB704 that voters in Bellevue consider themselves part of District 2.

“We should honor that to the greatest extent practicable,” she said.

Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue supported the committee amendment. As a senator from Sarpy County, he said voters there realize that some division is inevitable.

“Sarpy County was going to be split one way or the other,” Price said. “There is no configuration that doesn’t split it.”

Omaha Sen. Health Mello called the committee plan disruptive, saying it moves too many voters from one congressional district to another.

“We have over 226,000 Nebraskans who were moved from their original congressional district to a new congressional district,” he said. “That fact alone should raise concerns.”

Mello offered an alternative map, which he said would require moving only 77,000 people to new districts. Under Mello’s amendment, Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base would have remained in District 2 and western Sarpy County would have been placed in District 1.

Langemeier opposed the amendment, saying the committee’s proposal would divide only one county, while Mello’s would split both Sarpy and Johnson counties between districts. The committee’s desire to keep all but one county entirely within a given district resulted in a slightly higher overall population deviation, he said, but for good reason.

“There are legitimate reasons to have some deviation,” Langemeier said.

Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber also offered an alternative map. Among other changes, it would have moved Saline County, which includes Legislative District 32, from the 3rd to the 1st Congressional District. The county became part of the 3rd Congressional District during the last round of redistricting 10 years ago, he said, but has more in common with District 1.

Council said either the Mello or Karpisek proposal would be a better choice than the committee map. Both proposals contain smaller deviations, which she said the Supreme Court has determined should be the primary consideration for drawing congressional districts.

“The criteria for the U.S. House of Representatives has nothing to do with splitting counties,” she said. “It has to do with absolute equality of population. That’s the standard we are charged with achieving.”

The Mello amendment failed on a 16-30 vote. Karpisek withdrew his amendment, saying committee members had agreed to discuss a possible compromise before select file debate.

Other changes in the amended committee proposal would include shifting Dakota, Dixon and Wayne counties along the state’s northern border from District 1 to District 3. Gage, Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Richardson counties along the southern border also would shift from District 1 to District 3.

Legislative districts

State law calls for 49 single-member legislative districts. According to the 2010 census, the ideal population for a legislative district is 37,272.

LB703, introduced by the committee, would make numerous boundary changes across the state to account for population shifts. The proposed changes include making Scotts Bluff County a single district and moving Legislative District 49 from western Nebraska to Sarpy County.

Under the original committee proposal, Box Butte County and the city of Alliance would have been divided between District 43 and District 47. Currently, the county is part of District 49.

During the committee hearing on LB703, several testifiers expressed concern about using Nebraska Highway 2, which runs east and west through the city of Alliance, as the boundary line between districts 43 and 47.

The committee offered an amendment, adopted 40-0, which would place all of the city of Alliance within Legislative District 43.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha supported the committee proposal, saying it would not satisfy all senators or communities but represented the committee’s best effort to follow its redistricting guidelines.

“If we’re waiting for the perfect map to be visited upon us, we’re going to be here for a long time,” he said.

Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms offered an alternative proposal, developed with Sen. LeRoy Louden of Ellsworth. Among other changes, the amendment would have kept District 49 in western Nebraska and moved District 47 to Sarpy County.

Harms said his goal was to create compact and contiguous districts that retained important communities of interest in rural Nebraska. He said the redistricting process is happening at a time when rural areas are losing businesses and consolidating schools, so senators should consider ties that can strengthen districts. Such ties include common tourism, trade, governance and education, he said.

Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine said the committee proposal would make “drastic changes” to District 43, which she has represented since 2004. She said constituents in Custer County have expressed concerns about moving from a ranching district to the Platte Valley farming area of District 36.

Fischer added that the 1,700 square-mile area she serves would prove difficult to represent under the committee proposal.

“I would characterize District 43, under the committee map, as being unmanageable,” she said.

Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island opposed the Harms amendment, saying changes made to accommodate rural western communities of interest have negative ramifications for the eastern part of the state.

Grand Island is the state’s third largest city, Gloor said, and therefore has predominantly urban concerns. The city would be served by three senators under the Harms proposal, he said, adding that the change would place more Grand Island residents in predominantly rural districts.

“This is a problem and it’s not fair to those individuals,” he said.

Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas opposed the Harms map, but said she understood the desire to keep rural communities of interest together as western Nebraska faces population decline and other challenges.

“The angst in rural Nebraska is very real and it’s very palpable,” she said. “I don’t think we can minimize what anyone is saying … because that’s the reality.”

Among other changes, the committee proposal also shifts Dawes, Sheridan and Grant counties from District 49 to District 43. Rock, Boyd and Holt counties would move from District 43 to District 40 and Gosper County would move from District 38 to District 44.

Other political boundaries

Other bills in the committee’s redistricting package currently are in various stages of the legislative process.

LB699, which changes the boundaries for Nebraska Supreme Court districts, was passed by the Legislature May 20.

Three additional bills were advanced from select file by voice vote May 20:

  • LB700, which would change the boundaries of the Public Service Commission;
  • LB701, which would change the boundaries for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents; and
  • LB702, which would change the boundaries for the state Board of Education.
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