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Nebraska lawmakers to seek redistricting changes in 2019

September 23, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts will face fresh scrutiny and a new sense of urgency next year as Nebraska legislators decide whether to overhaul the effort to reduce partisanship.

Democrats and some Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature say that the current process, which will begin again in 2021, is too self-serving because it lets incumbent lawmakers design their own districts and those held by political allies in Congress. Others maintain the state constitution requires legislators to redraw district boundaries and turning over even partial responsibility to others would violate the spirt of the law.

Each state must make changes to legislative and congressional districts every 10 years based on population counts by the U.S. Census. In Nebraska, the last exercise in 2011 prompted a bitter confrontation as Democrats accused majority Republicans of shifting 2nd Congressional District boundaries to help the GOP after then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 gained the district’s Electoral College vote. Similar disputes arose over legislative districts.

“I’m hopeful that we can get a bill that ensures a transparent and fair process,” said Sen. Sue Crawford, a Democrat from Bellevue, which shifted from the urban 2nd district to the more rural and Republican 1st district. “I don’t think there was a sense of urgency in past sessions, but it’s becoming more urgent. A sense of urgency helps move things along in the Legislature, and redistricting is no exception.”

Crawford said problems with the current process are compounded by term limits, because senators who experienced past redistricting debates have left the Legislature.

After Republicans pushed through the new map over Democratic objections, Crawford said some in her district questioned the move.

“I have many constituents who felt that was inappropriate, that we are more a part of the Omaha metro area than CD 1,” she said.

Since 2011, there have been attempts to change the process, with many of the proposals calling for independent, bipartisan boards that would design maps for lawmakers to approve or reject, but those efforts stalled.

Sen. John Murante, a former legislative staffer who helped with the 2011 redistricting, said he believes the current process is “fair, but could be improved.” Murante, of Gretna, said some senators in 2011 tried to change the maps because they wanted to keep specific neighborhoods, parks and churches in their district.

“That really shouldn’t be part of the redistricting process,” he said. “Legislators’ priorities tend to be to protect their own districts and not follow traditional redistricting principles.”

Murante said he’d also like to see a formal ranking of redistricting principles so that lawmakers know which ones takes priority when different principles are in conflict. For example, is it more important to run boundaries along a major highway or ensure a district’s population is closer to the ideal number of people?

Some who oppose creating bipartisan boards contend lawmakers are constitutionally mandated to approve the districts, and any attempt to hand off any responsibility would violate that requirement. Gov. Pete Ricketts, who vetoed such a measure in 2016, typically makes that constitutional argument.

“The governor opposes attempts to usurp the state’s constitution and delegate the state’s redistricting authority to unelected and unaccountable boards,” said Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman.

With another redistricting process approaching, Murante said lawmakers will need to reach agreement and act soon.

“Redistricting is always going to be contentious, regardless of the process,” he said. “That’s true in all 50 states, regardless of the process that’s used. The question in my mind is whether the outcome is fair, and does it adhere to the constitution.”

Advocates for changing the system have floated the idea of a ballot initiative, but a petition drive is likely too expensive, said Sherry Miller, president of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska.

Initiatives to make redistricting less partisan will be on the ballot this November in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah.

Miller said she knows of at least one new proposal lawmakers will consider in next year’s session.

“It’s something we will be working very hard on,” she said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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