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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

Congressional and legislative redistricting is in the spotlight as we move closer to the next round of reapportionment that will follow on the heels of the 2020 federal census.

What could be a landmark challenge of a partisan legislative redistricting plan in Wisconsin is now before a divided U.S. Supreme Court.

Early hints suggest Justice Anthony Kennedy may tip the court toward a breakthrough ruling striking down excessively partisan redistricting plans.  

That could be a game-changer, although the court faces a difficult challenge in determining and defining what might be considered to be excessive. 

It's a reminder of what Justice Potter Stewart said when he struggled to define obscenity in a 1964 Supreme Court case about pornography: "I know it when I see it."

* * *

Two proposals to reform Nebraska's redistricting process are waiting in committee when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Both are designed to distance the Legislature from the initial process of drawing the boundaries of proposed new districts by assigning that task to a citizens commission, but final authority for constructing new districts would remain in the Legislature's hands.

The Legislature approved a redistricting reform bill in 2016, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who questioned its constitutionality.

That proposal, which would have created an independent citizens commission to draw proposed maps, was the product of more than two years of negotiation by Sen. John Murante of Gretna, a Republican, and Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a Democrat who was term-limited out of the Legislature at the end of the year.

Murante chose to not attempt to override the governor's veto.  

Instead, he introduced a new bill this year and said he would seek agreement with Ricketts on language that would meet the governor's objections.  

The bill (LB653) remained in the hands of the Legislative Council's executive board when the Legislature adjourned for the year.

Murante's proposal establishes equal distribution of population among districts as the top priority to be achieved in redistricting.  

The bill would specifically prohibit "cracking, packing or otherwise diluting the voting rights of any voting majority or minority based on race or language."

Its language also prohibits the citizens advisory commission from considering "political party affiliation of registered voters or previous election results" in making its recommendations to the Legislature.  

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, a Democrat, also has a bill (LB216) pending that would create a citizens advisory committee, which would recommend redistricting plans that senators could either accept or reject.

Equity in population would be the paramount consideration in drawing new boundaries, according to the terms of his bill.

* * *

Harr was a newly elected senator in 2011 when the Legislature last tackled the redistricting challenge.

"I remember a senior senator told me that was the only time we were allowed to be partisan," Harr recalls. 

"I think Senator (Chris) Langemeier tried to be as fair as possible while making sure his own team did OK."

Langemeier, a Schuyler senator who chaired the last legislative redistricting committee, was on the Republican team.

"But now I think this body is a bit more partisan than it was in 2011," Harr said. "I hope it will continue to do the right thing."

A seat on the redistricting committee is a plum assignment for protecting turf, but it also subjects a senator to the possibility, even the probability, of disappointing an array of colleagues who might not get the exact legislative district boundaries they may crave.

One prediction probably is almost certain: A majority of members of the special committee will be Republicans.  

* * *

Nebraska's nonpartisan legislature clearly has displayed partisanship in congressional redistricting.  

Redistricting following the 2010 census was carefully crafted to increase Republican voting strength in metropolitan Omaha's competitive 2nd District by shifting designated portions of Sarpy County between the 1st and 2nd districts.

Offutt Air Force Base, which is intimately tied to Omaha and its corporate community, was moved into Lincoln's 1st District during the behind-the-scenes deliberations. 

Republican Gov. Dave Heineman was actively engaged in that process.

Negotiated reapportionment of nonpartisan legislative districts traditionally has centered more on incumbent protection than partisan concerns.  

But some observers of the 2017 legislative session, in addition to Harr, suggest that there is more open and internal partisanship today and that may be more of a factor in legislative, as well as congressional, redistricting decisions next time. 

Finishing up

* If Congress wouldn't act when 20 school children were slaughtered in their classrooms at their elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, there's no reason to believe it will do anything meaningful now. But there also is no good reason we have to live — and die — this way.

* Deb Fischer was ranked as the 13th-most effective U.S. senator in a study by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a joint initiative by the University of Virginia's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Vanderbilt University. The survey explores how successful senators are at moving legislative proposals into law.

Ben Sasse was 95th on that list in a cluster with some familiar Senate names: Bernie Sanders, Jack Reed, Thad Cochran, Jeff Sessions.

* Rich excerpts from the writing of Willa Cather in an article in The New Yorker along with lots of insight into journalist Matthew Hansen's Red Cloud. 

* Mike Johanns will be honored by the Nebraska Society of Washington as its Distinguished Nebraskan Award recipient for 2017 at a reception at the National Press Club on Nov. 6.  

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or

On Twitter @LJSDon.



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