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Don Walton: Census process has become political tool
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Don Walton: Census process has become political tool

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The census and politics have become a combustible combination.

What should be viewed as a good government effort to secure a full and accurate count has been weaponized as a tactical and partisan political tool.

Congressional and legislative redistricting decisions have been manipulated and abused by political parties to various degrees following each 10-year census and now efforts may be underway to suppress a full and accurate census count in order to benefit one political party.

In some states, the most recent redistricting decisions were so egregious that they deserved and attracted court attention. Nebraska's redistricting decisions did not sound such alarms.

Clearly, congressional district lines were redrawn in 2011 in a manner that would benefit Republican nominees in metropolitan Omaha's 2nd District, a divided and contested House battleground in which a shuffling of a few thousand votes could make a difference.

But Democratic congressional nominee Brad Ashford was able to win that district in 2014.

A bipartisan legislative effort to address the issue of equal representation through redistricting reform in Nebraska, along with later legislation designed to help assure a full and complete census count, have been vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

In 2016, the governor vetoed a bipartisan bill designed to distance state senators from the process of drawing new congressional and legislative districts by creating a new citizens commission that would devise proposed redistricting plans for consideration by the Legislature.

Ricketts raised constitutional concerns and said the proposal would open the process to "political cronyism."

In 2019, the governor vetoed a bill creating a Complete Count Commission in Nebraska that was enacted by the Legislature on a 38-4 vote, a proposal designed to help ensure a complete and accurate census count.

Ricketts said he'll work with community and citizen groups to help assure a complete census count.

Supporters of the proposed commission have pointed to estimates that Nebraska could lose $409 million in federal funding over a 10-year period if the statewide census fails to count just 0.1% of Nebraska residents.

Minority and low-income people, especially children, are the most likely residents not to be counted, especially at a time when undocumented immigrants and their families may be reluctant to step forward and be counted.

Next year, the census will be conducted; and, in 2021, redistricting will be underway in the Legislature.

With population growth in Nebraska centering in Lincoln and metropolitan Omaha while rural population is declining, those decisions not only will determine the shape of congressional districts, but also the division of power between rural and urban Nebraska in the Legislature for the following 10 years while the rural-urban gap will be growing.

Those are big political stakes.

* * *

Five state senators sat down last week with a UNL student audience to talk about life in Nebraska's nonpartisan Legislature.

Newbies and veterans, Republicans and Democrats, men and women.

Free from the daily dictates of party and institutionalized party division, they told students that they develop personal relationships with their colleagues, reach out routinely to senators with whom they disagree, and nurture the ability to listen.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you, is one of the strengths of a 49-member, one-house legislature.

"It's a special little treasure," Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said, while also cautioning that "Washington is spilling over a bit into Nebraska politics" today.

"I have not met an evil colleague," Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said the first colleagues she approaches after introducing a bill are those who might be expected to oppose the legislation, asking them "what can I do to get your support?"

"Get to know people who aren't like you," Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth advised the students. "Do the things you're uncomfortable with."

"And you've got to listen," Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams said.

* * *

Finishing up:

* "Everyone was in the loop," translated: "I'm not going to be your fall guy."

* It's party uber alles in Washington and anyone who strays from one side to the other is viewed as a traitor, not to country but to party.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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