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Medicaid expansion passed. What’s the next big issue Nebraska voters will decide?

November 22, 2018

With this month’s voter approval of a citizen-driven Medicaid expansion initiative, following on the heels of 2014 voter enactment of an increase in the state minimum wage, what might be next on the citizen agenda?

There are early stirrings of a possible initiative petition drive to place congressional and legislative redistricting reform on the 2020 ballot in advance of the 2021 redistricting that will be triggered by the next federal census.

Such a proposal would attempt to distance political parties and elected officials from the process of drawing the maps that will reshape those districts by handing that assignment to a citizens commission.

Similar proposals designed to combat partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection efforts won overwhelming approval in a number of states, including Michigan and Colorado, earlier this month.

The reforms squeaked through in Utah — 498,891 to 495,342 at last count — and a far more complicated reform package was overwhelmingly approved by voters in Ohio in May.

The Ohio proposal amended the state constitution to require support from at least half of the minority members of the Legislature to enact congressional redistricting, thus forcing legislators to reach a broad consensus.

In Missouri, voter-mandated redistricting change took the form of handing the task to a nonpartisan state demographer. That was part of a reform package that included lobbying and campaign finance restrictions.

In Nebraska, any redistricting maps drawn by a citizens commission ultimately would need legislative approval, unless a constitutional amendment entirely changed the rules of the game.

The possibility of a Nebraska initiative has not moved beyond the initial talking stage.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who helped spearhead the Medicaid expansion initiative, declined to comment specifically on the possibility of a redistricting reform initiative.

“A bunch of folks are looking at a whole host of possible ballot initiatives,” he said.

“I think the people are ready on the tough, fundamental issues to consider needed reforms, realizing that elected officials aren’t getting the job done.”

Asked to assess the possibility of a redistricting initiative, a political source in Omaha emailed: “Some initial conversations already underway.”

“I feel like that is the consensus-builder for a broad coalition,” he added.

In 2016, the Nebraska Legislature approved creation of a citizens redistricting commission on a 29-15 vote, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and no subsequent attempt was made to override the governor’s objections.

Under that proposal, the Legislature retained its constitutional power to approve or disapprove the plans adopted by a citizens committee, which would have settled on its own conclusions only after a process that would include a series of public hearings across the state.

If a redistricting initiative is placed on the 2020 ballot and approved by Nebraska voters, that would mark the third time in six years that voters stepped in to take action when the Legislature declined to do so.

The expansion of Medicaid health care coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans, most of whom work at one or more low-paid jobs, followed seven years of legislative refusal to adopt Medicaid expansion bills.

The minimum wage hike was enacted by voters after state senators rejected previous legislative proposals.

Redistricting reform had been difficult to achieve prior to the 2016 breakthrough that was quickly erased by the governor’s veto.

The measure was the product of more than two years of negotiation between Sen. John Murante of Gretna, a Republican, and former Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a Democrat.

In his veto message, Ricketts said a proposed new citizens commission would open the redistricting process to “political cronyism.”

Supporters of the proposal argued that it actually would distance redistricting from elected officeholders, political parties and partisan influence.

Nebraska’s unique Legislature is nonpartisan, but political parties and partisan pressure always play a key, and sometimes decisive, role in redistricting decisions.

Substantial redistricting decisions lie ahead in 2021.

Projections by David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, suggest the population in western and central Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District will be 52,000 below what should be the average district size in 2020.

Metropolitan Omaha’s 2nd District would be home to 41,000 more people than the average size for Nebraska’s three districts.

The 2nd District is the only currently competitive congressional district and its new boundaries would be most subject to partisan gerrymandering in 2021.

Population projections by Drozd suggest the metropolitan complex formed by Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties will be home to 56 percent of Nebraska’s population in 2020 and thus be entitled to two additional seats in the 49-member Legislature.

That would bring the metropolitan total to 27, with a corresponding reduction in rural Nebraska representation to 22 state senators.

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