Sens. John Murante and Heath Mello have reached substantial agreement on a congressional and legislative redistricting proposal designed to distance state senators from the partisanship that tends to shape those decisions.
Their proposal, agreed to after almost two years of give-and-take discussions, would create a nine-member citizens commission that would recommend redistricting plans to the nonpartisan Legislature after at least four public hearings throughout the state.
The process would begin with base maps submitted to the commission by the legislative research office and end with legislative approval or disapproval of the plans recommended by the commission.
However, in separate interviews with the two senators, it appeared that they might not be on the same page yet on one essential ingredient of the plan.
If the Legislature disapproved a recommended redistricting plan "following public hearings and (after receiving) formal opinions from the secretary of state and the attorney general," Murante said, it could amend the proposal.
Mello said he believes the Legislature should either accept or reject the commission's plan "on an up or down vote," leaving it to the commission to devise and submit an amended proposal if the original plan is rejected by state senators.
Murante is a Republican who hails from Gretna and Mello is an Omaha Democrat, and both men have been active in their political parties.
The Legislature will consider the redistricting of a number of public bodies in 2021 following the 2020 U.S. census. But this is the final legislative session for the term-limited Mello, and both men would like to bring closure to their efforts while both are still in the Legislature.
"We both worked hard enough to get this that we want to see it done," Murante said.
"We worked well together," Mello said. "There was good give and take."
Informed of the emerging plan, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature's executive board, said he's prepared to designate the bill as a priority for consideration this year.
One of the key agreements reached by the two senators in shaping their final proposal was that the redistricting process would give preference to following "identifiable lines," like city and county boundaries, over achieving exact population parity among districts, Murante said.
The nine-member citizens commission would be named by state senators who would caucus by congressional district. Each of the three district caucuses would select three members.
The commission would include five citizens who are registered as members of the political party that won the latest gubernatorial election. Four commissioners would be members of the other party.
"This creates a separation between politicians and the drawing of the map," Murante said.
"It's put in the hands of those who are not in public office," Mello said.
Once the commission's proposals are drawn, exposed to public vetting and submitted to the Legislature, Murante said, "we think the momentum for those maps would be pretty significant."
Congressional redistricting has tended to be an issue that has strained the nonpartisan nature of the Legislature with the political parties actively engaged in the shadows and senators generally dividing along party registration lines.
In 2011, following the most recent census, metropolitan Omaha's 2nd Congressional District -- the only competitive House district in the state -- was realigned in a manner that increased the Republican voter registration margin over Democrats.
In the process, Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue was moved into the 1st District with Lincoln despite its longstanding and fundamental ties to Omaha.