Nebraska lawmakers skeptical about redistricting reform

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will probably draw their own legislative and congressional districts next year despite numerous attempts to adopt a less partisan approach used by states such as neighboring Iowa.

Senators have repeatedly rejected efforts to create an independent commission to spearhead the once-a-decade ritual, which starts anew in 2021. Even a watered-down proposal designed to minimize the role of partisanship faces an uncertain future when it goes before a legislative committee on Wednesday.

“It’s important that we all get together and try to reduce some of the partisanship,” said Sen. John McCollister, an Omaha Republican who introduced the latest bill and who frequently works with Democrats.

Nebraska’s one-house Legislature is ostensibly nonpartisan but dominated by Republicans, who hold 30 of its 49 seats. They enjoyed an even larger majority during the last redistricting in 2011, when they approved new districts over furious objections from Democrats who accused them of gerrymandering Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District, one of the few places where Democrats are competitive.

The unusually bitter struggle led some lawmakers to believe they needed to tweak the process, but nothing has changed so far.

McCollister said proposals to create an independent redistricting commission are “a nonstarter” for lawmakers, and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts remains opposed as well.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor “has made it clear that redistricting is a specific and clear duty of elected legislators. He would oppose any effort to delegate that important duty outside of the Legislature.”

McCollister said he doesn’t think Republicans in the majority are willing to surrender any of their power to an independent commission. The idea came from Iowa, which uses a nonpartisan state agency and an outside advisory commission to draw its maps. Self-interested lawmakers are removed from the process and are forced to take a simple up-or-down vote on the new boundaries once they’re complete.

“It’s a fair process if we have an independent redistricting committee take on that responsibility,” said Sen. Tony Vargas, a Democrat from Omaha. “It’s not a new thing. Other states have gone down this route.”

Like Iowa, Nebraska also has some restrictions on how the districts are drawn. The Nebraska Constitution requires them to be contiguous and compact, meaning all parts of them must be physically connected and they shouldn’t be bizarrely shaped or have jagged boundary lines. It also requires Nebraska to respect county lines “when practicable.”

Opponents argue that a commission would give redistricting power to an unelected group of people with their own partisan biases, in violation of the Nebraska Constitution’s requirement that lawmakers set the districts.

“I wouldn’t support, without very strong justification, taking away that constitutional authority,” said Sen. Mike Hilgers, a Lincoln Republican who serves as chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board.

McCollister will present his new proposal to the Executive Board on Wednesday, but its prospects are unclear.

The new bill would keep Nebraska’s current process but give Democrats more influence. A legislative committee would still draw each district, but its leaders would have to be elected with a two-thirds majority of the committee. Because the committee is composed of five Republicans and four Democrats, at least one Democrat would have to vote for the committee leaders.

The bill would also require Ricketts to call a special session if lawmakers don’t agree to new boundaries by the regular session’s end.

The partisan struggle comes as no surprise to some government watchdogs, who have fought for decades to change how the Legislature draws its districts.

“If you can find a way to make the process fair, you have to sell it to people who aren’t sure they want to make it fair,” said Jack Gould, issues chairman of Common Cause Nebraska.

Gould said Nebraska’s redistricting process has become more transparent since he first lobbied on the issue in 1985, but to get an independent commission, “it’s probably going to take a scandal.”

In 2011, Republicans in the ostensibly nonpartisan, one-house Legislature forced through a series of changes that moved Offutt Air Force Base and its minority-heavy population out of the 2nd Congressional District, the only district in recent history that Democrats have occasionally won. Voters in that area were shifted into the Republican-leaning 1st Congressional District, diluting the strength of Democratic voters.

Former President Barack Obama won the 2nd District in his 2008 campaign and claimed one of Nebraska’s three electoral votes, a major embarrassment for the state GOP. Obama lost the district in 2012, after the district was redrawn. Democrat Brad Ashford did win the district’s House seat in 2014 but lost it after just one term.

Republicans could have more difficulty in 2021. In the last redistricting, GOP senators enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority that allowed them to overpower the Democrats.

In the current Legislature, Republicans outnumber Democrats, 30-18, plus one left-leaning senator. At least 33 are needed to overcome a filibuster, so Republicans would have to gain seats in the next election to keep Democrats from blocking any new maps.

Another bill from Vargas would require that Nebraska prisoners be counted as residents of the city where they lived before they were incarcerated when lawmakers draw new district boundaries.

“We need to make sure we have a fair redistricting process, and prisoners are being counted in a way they shouldn’t,” Vargas said.