A bill designed to take the partisanship out of congressional and legislative redistricting decisions by distancing state senators from the process of drawing district maps cleared its initial hurdle on Monday by a sturdy 30-5 vote.
Eleven senators who were in the legislative chamber declined to vote on the motion to move the measure (LB580) forward.
The bill would create an independent citizens commission to draw the maps defining a number of governing districts, beginning in 2021 after completion of the next U.S. census.
Those recommendations would be submitted to the Legislature for approval or disapproval.
The bill is the product of years of cooperative work and negotiation by Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Heath Mello of Omaha.
Although both serve as members of the nonpartisan Legislature, each is a politically engaged and savvy member of his political party. Murante is a Republican; Mello is a Democrat.
Redistricting decisions, especially those defining the boundaries of Nebraska's three congressional districts, always have brought partisan considerations into play in the nonpartisan Legislature, with majority Republicans dominating those decisions.
All five senators who voted against advancement of the bill and all 11 who declined to vote are registered Republicans.
Murante said the bill, which creates a commission of nine people appointed by the Legislature, "separates the drawing of maps from politicians."
The bill "puts the public in charge of this process instead of politicians," Mello said, although the Legislature retains the final say in approving or rejecting the recommended redistricting plans.
"Politicians draw maps that work for them," Mello said.
If a plan is rejected, the commission would reconvene to offer an alternative to the Legislature.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion spearheaded opposition to the bill, noting that "not a Republican came to me asking (us) to tinker" with the current process.
"We didn't elect a computer to redistrict the state," he said, "or some unelected board."
Redistricting would begin in the legislative research office, which would offer computer-generated maps to the commission, proposing plans that could achieve relative population equity and meet other goals, such as adherence to county boundaries.
Several senators, led by Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, raised concerns about possible urban domination of the commission since three of its members would be appointed from each congressional district.
Six of the nine would come from metropolitan Omaha's district and the district that includes Lincoln, he noted.
"The process now is ugly and can be a little partisan, but it works," Bloomfield said.
Kintner reminded his colleagues that the current process allows senators to protect fellow incumbents when redrawing legislative lines.
"We were in the incumbency protection racket on legislative redistricting last time," he noted.
That's part of the problem, Murante responded.
"Redistricting shouldn't be an exercise in incumbent protection," he said.
Nor should it be directed as it was after the 2010 census to "keep as many districts as possible in western Nebraska," Murante said.
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, a Republican, supported the bill, arguing that redistricting now is "the most partisan process (and) the most rancorous process" that occurs in the Legislature.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, another Republican, said redistricting in 2011 was "very, very politically oriented."
Congressional redistricting was purposely designed to "protect the 2nd District so a Republican could be elected," he said.
The proposed citizens commission would be composed of five members of the political party that won the most recent gubernatorial election and four members from the other party.
Voting against advancement of the bill, in addition to Bloomfield and Kintner, were Sens. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, Joni Craighead of Omaha and Mike Groene of North Platte.
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