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Redistricting battle could center on rural senators trying to hold onto Nebraska Legislature seats
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Redistricting battle could center on rural senators trying to hold onto Nebraska Legislature seats

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Recording of an online press conference detailing data about Nebraska from the first release of data from the 2020 Census. The conference was conducted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, featuring David Drozd, research coordinator, of the Center for Public Affairs Research, the lead agency of the Nebraska State Data Center Network.

As the Legislature approaches its politically charged redistricting assignment, current population estimates suggest that the Omaha-Lincoln-Sarpy County metropolitan complex may be entitled to up to two additional legislative seats.

And early figures point the way to congressional redistricting that will once again increase the geographic size of Nebraska's vast 3rd Congressional District, which currently spreads across three-fourths of the state, encompasses two time zones and is larger than three states.

The Legislature is preparing to meet in special session in mid-September to tackle its once-every-decade task after it receives and is able to process final data from the U.S. Census Bureau, whose 2020 census was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenge of drawing new legislative and congressional districts typically strips away the nonpartisan fabric of Nebraska's unique one-house Legislature as political parties actively participate in the process, with the state's majority Republican Party clearly holding the upper hand.

Thirty-two of the 49 members of the Legislature are Republicans.

Enough to pass any redistricting plan, but one count shy of the 33 needed to avoid an opposition filibuster.

Current estimates point to 56% of the state's population residing in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties, centered largely in the state's three biggest cities of Omaha, Lincoln and Bellevue, according to census data provided by David Drozd, research coordinator at the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  

David Drozd

David Drozd, Research Coordinator Center for Public Affairs Research, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Those same three counties held just 31% of the state's population in the 1950 census.

Current estimates suggest that the three metro counties may be entitled to 27.4 seats in the Legislature based on population; they hold 25.8 seats now with some districts including precincts in other counties.

The number of metropolitan Omaha and Lincoln senators stands at 25, a legislative majority.

The concentrated growth in the Omaha-Lincoln-Sarpy County metroplex "suggests the Big 3 counties will contain 27 of the 49 seats in the Unicameral after redistricting," the Center for Public Affairs Research stated in an earlier census assessment. 

In drawing new legislative districts, the Legislature is required to remain within a 10% maximum population variance between the smallest and largest districts, Drozd noted. 

Based on estimates, the current population disparity among legislative districts ranges wildly from 33,959 to 57,936.

Congressional district population ranges from 601,984 to 697,979.

With population projections pointing to continuing increased urban growth in the future, any disparity in rural-urban representation built into this year's redistricting decisions could be expected to grow larger during the 10 years prior to the next census in 2030.

In 2011, Drozd said, "the Big Three (counties) got exactly the proportion of legislative seats they were due."

The greatest controversy 10 years ago was sparked by congressional redistricting decisions that shifted precincts in Sarpy County between the 1st and 2nd districts in an effort to increase the Republican advantage in Nebraska's most competitive U.S. House district.

In the process, the Legislature sent Offutt Air Force Base and Bellevue into the Lincoln district while assigning rural Sarpy County precincts to the Omaha district. 

"Timing is the biggest challenge" for the Legislature now, Drozd said. 

New census data is due by Aug. 16 and processing it will require "a fairly quick turnaround" by the legislative research office, he said.

Speaker Mike Hilgers of Lincoln has said he plans to build in two weeks for the Legislative Research Division to organize the data. 

Then, the Legislature's redistricting committee would have two weeks to prepare its recommendations for consideration by the full Legislature, which is tentatively scheduled to convene on or about Sept. 13.

The committee is required to hold public hearings on its proposals in each of Nebraska's three congressional districts. 

Political mapmakers outside the Legislature will also be at work in advance of the committee's decisions. And interest groups outside the Legislature already are weighing in.

The Nebraska Farm Bureau has been especially visible in arguing for protection of rural districts. 

The urban-rural division of power within the Legislature also translates into political and policy divisions, with urban senators largely Democratic and rural lawmakers largely Republican.  

At the congressional level, redistricting will require lifting some counties from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's 1st District and moving them into Rep. Adrian Smith's 3rd District after previously expanding Smith's western and central Nebraska district 10 years ago to include the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state while moving Columbus into the 1st District. 

The redistricting committee, chaired by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, is composed of five Republicans and four Democrats. 

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

On Twitter @LJSdon

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