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Redistricting committee displays partisan divide as it adopts rules guiding process

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It didn't take long for the Legislature's redistricting committee to split into partisan division.

During an executive session filled with tension, the committee Tuesday removed a guideline it had accepted earlier to attempt to preserve the core of current legislative districts in reaching its redistricting decisions.

The committee action came five hours after the Nebraska Farm Bureau had urged the committee to eliminate that guiding principle in devising its proposal to redistrict the 49-member Legislature, arguing that senators need to preserve as many rural districts as they can.

Rural districts generally result in conservative Republican members of the nonpartisan Legislature.

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The five Republicans who sit on the redistricting committee voted to no longer accord any priority consideration to preserving the core of current districts; the three Democrats who were present voted to preserve that guideline.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha argued that core and community-of-interest factors are more important for urban districts and their senators, citing Omaha as a community of distinct neighborhoods.

Later, the committee split again along partisan lines in rejecting Sen. Adam Morfeld's proposal to strive to reach closer to one-man-one-vote redistricting plans by reducing the previously approved 10% maximum deviation in legislative district population to 8%.

The opening shots in what is likely to be the usual once-every-decade battle over legislative and congressional redistricting were fired earlier in the day by rural Nebraska spokesmen who urged the committee to preserve as many rural seats in the Legislature as they can.

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The Legislature needs to draw "maps that protect the voice of rural Nebraskans," Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue of Central City told the committee at a public hearing.

The committee's proposed guideline that it would attempt to preserve the core of districts is "problematic," he said, when "we need flexibility" in reapportioning legislative districts.

"We support as many rural districts as possible," McHargue said.

A number of rural Nebraskans followed behind, delivering a similar message to the committee.

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"We want to maintain our rural representation," Steve Ebke of Daykin said, urging that "current district boundaries not be significantly altered" and cautioning against redistricting that "would benefit urban interests over rural interests."

"Keep agriculture at the top of your mind during the redistricting process," Jason Perdue of York urged the committee.

The decline of rural representation in the Legislature is one of two flashpoints that the committee will be confronting along with the politically charged adjustment of boundary lines for metropolitan Omaha's competitive 2nd Congressional District.

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With official U.S. Census figures delayed by the pandemic and finally scheduled to be released Aug. 16, senators plan to hold a special session this autumn to tackle the 10-year task that always overwhelms the nonpartisan feature of the Legislature. 

In the meantime, its redistricting committee — composed of five Republicans and four Democrats — will hold hearings and draw maps redrawing district lines. 

The hearing Tuesday fielded comments on the committee's proposed guidelines in reaching its decisions, which had included attempting to preserve the core of current districts along with communities of interest while remaining within the population variances that have been acceptable to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Early indications are that new census figures will point toward a reduction of one or two rural seats in the 49-member Legislature with a corresponding increase in urban seats, probably in the metropolitan Omaha area.

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Westin Miller, director of public policy for Civic Nebraska, said transparency is "the single biggest thing you can do to ensure public trust."

Other advocates for accountability in government echoed his sentiments, urging the committee to be responsive to the public during the redistricting process.

"Give us access to what's happening," said Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska.

"Think about what's best for the voter, not the politician," said Sheri St. Clair of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska. 

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

On Twitter @LJSdon

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