Lawmakers and Better Boundaries reach agreement over changes to independent redistricting initiative

Utah Capitol 15

Legislative leaders and representatives for the Better Boundaries group have reached an agreement over changes to the voter-passed initiative to create an independent redistricting commission.

After agreeing to several changes to the initiative language, the two groups hit an impasse late last week over whether to codify standards both the commission and lawmakers would be required to follow when drawing political lines during the once-a-decade redistricting process. first reported that legislative leaders and Better Boundaries were discussing a deal to change the voter-approved law last week.

House Republicans were briefed on the parameters of the deal before floor time on Wednesday morning. Senate Republicans were told about the deal Tuesday.

While creating an independent commission to address redistricting, the agreement shifts that commission to more of an advisory role.

The original language in Prop. 4 said both lawmakers and the commission could not consider where a lawmaker lives when drawing the political lines, sometimes referred to as an “incumbent protection” clause. The proposition also requires both entities to strive for “partisan symmetry,” which lawmakers complain is not an easily defined term.

After much negotiation, lawmakers and Better Boundaries representatives agreed to language that sets some standards for the commission to follow when drawing political lines. Those include preserving communities of interest and maintaining the “cores of prior districts.” The requirement to keep as much of the prior districts intact as possible was something Better Boundaries asked to be included in the agreement, according to legislative sources.

The legislature will not be required to follow those guidelines when drawing their maps next year. 

The commission will be tasked with coming up with as many as three maps for any given political boundary, but the legislature will no longer be required to take an up or down vote on those proposals. That also eliminates the possibility that a member of the public could file a lawsuit against the legislature if they fail to adhere to the commission’s guidelines.

The bargain also eliminates a provision requiring the legislature to make their staffers available to the commission for their work, which lawmakers say presents an unacceptable conflict of interest. Instead, the legislature will allocate approximately $1 million so the commission can hire its own staff for their work.

The commission will still have seven members, but the compromise alters how those members are selected. The governor, House Speaker, Senate President, and the minority leaders in both houses each get to name one member of the commission. That hasn’t changed. But, previously, the final two picks were made by the majority and minority in the House and Senate working together. Now those last two slots will be filled by the House Speaker and Senate President working together. Both of those final selections must be political independents who have not been registered with a political party for at least two years. That could potentially shift the partisan balance of the commission, although that remains to be seen. 

Also gone from the original proposition is a requirement that any map put forward by the commission must receive at least five votes from the seven-member group. That will now be up to the commission, who will set their own rules.

One late addition to the agreement is a requirement that the commission issues a report to the legislature in either 2022 or 2023 about their process and what could be improved going forward. Sources indicate that there was a push to include a sunset clause for the commission, but that was dropped in favor of the performance report.

Sources indicate Better Boundaries signed off on the potential changes earlier this week after putting out a press release on Friday, claiming lawmakers were moving to repeal the initiative. Legislative leaders say the subject of repeal has not come up in negotiations since talks began during the 2019 legislative session.

Prop. 4 passed statewide during the 2018 session with just 50.3% of the vote. However, it failed in 18 of 29 Senate districts and 43 of 75 House districts.

The groups have agreed in principle, but the final bill has not been given the thumbs up. Legislative sources tell the formal announcement will be made at a press conference on Thursday.