There will be at least two attempts in the 2016 Legislature to influence something that lawmakers traditionally don’t even think about mid-decade: Redistricting.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Millcreek, have bills that would require lawmakers to follow a different path than they have every ten years in redrawing their own Utah House and Senate districts.
Nelson hails from Tooele County, which for more than 20 years has been split up in way weird ways to protect sitting House and Senate members.
(Now, former GOP leaders of both houses would disagree with the above statement, but the simple facts speak for themselves here.)
The Utah Constitution says that the Legislature will redistrict every ten years after the Federal Census.
So both Nelson’s and Iwamoto’s bills are only recommendations in how that redistricting will take place concerning legislative districts.
“I don’t want to touch” U.S. House redistricting, says Nielson. “That would remain the same old political grab-bag.”
Here is Nelson’s HJR5.
The wording is technical and may seem confusing, Nelson admits.
He sums it up this way:
First, in redrawing state House and Senate districts lawmakers would give primary importance to following county and city boundaries.
In fact, incumbent home addresses could not be considered.
“I want this to be incumbent blind,” he said.
Second, more flexibility would be given to the statistical variances between one district and another, or to the mean, or average, differences in population numbers in districts.
Iwamoto’s idea takes an incremental step toward establishing an independent redistricting commission without actually usurping the Legislature’s constitutional power of redistricting.
Iwamoto’s SB81 creates a seven-person independent redistricting commission. Republicans and Democrats each gets three members of the committee, with the seventh being elected by the other six members. This commission would be tasked with producing at least three map proposals, but no more than five. The Legislature could then accept or reject those maps as they are non-binding.
Iwamoto says the idea comes from her time on the Salt Lake County Council, which adopted a similar plan for drawing districts.
“It’s not going to change who is in power,” says Iwamoto. “The benefits for the public are great. The commission took public comment, and it was a very transparent process. In the end, everybody won.”
Just like Nelson’s proposal, Iwamoto’s bill does not deal with congressional redistricting.
Nelson said while Tooele County has arguably been treated poorly in recent redistricting, he is not taking a selfish or self-interested approach here.
“I want to minimize lawmakers’ drawing up their own districts; in fact, incumbency should be the lowest priority here.
“We should not be looking at preserving anyone’s position (in the Legislature),” says Nielson.
“But rather at fair representation and not politicization.”
By grouping counties and even cities into areas of common interest, more reasonable legislative districts would result, he believes.
The Legislature could violate HJR5 – which sets up internal redistricting operation rules. In fact, the Legislature has been known to break its own rules before – or just plain suspend them as a majority seems fit.
But there would be public opinion consequences if they did clearly violate HJR5.
Iwamoto’s bill tasks the independent Commission with drawing new lines in the unlikely case that Utah’s redistricting plans are thrown out by a judge. Again, those new maps are not binding, and lawmakers can do whatever they want.
Nielson’s rule explicitly says a violation of the rule could not be seen as court-actionable.
There are, of course, all kinds of stories over the years about how this or that influential legislator protected his own interests during redistricting.
Sometimes these are more personal than political.
One former state senator wanted one neighborhood included in his newly redrawn district because his brother-in-law was the local LDS bishop, and the senator’s chances at favorable party delegates would likely come with that ward.
In another case, a senator didn’t want to be forced to face internal rules/delegates from his county party, so he desired his district include a small area of an adjoining county.
That threw his re-election into the multi-county district elections – where he stood for election at his party’s state convention, not in his county convention.
In any case, says Nielson, he doesn’t want to get involved in those case-by-case arguments.
That, in fact, is the central part of his bill: Take those kinds of considerations out of the legislative redistricting process and force redistricting into a more reasonable, defendable realm.
“I really want to improve the process statewide,” says Nielson. “It is clearly a conflict of interest for us to draw our own district boundaries” – one forced on them by the Utah Constitution.
“I don’t put my ideas into an independent commission – not go there. But move to a process that can shelter legislators from accusations of self-interest.”
And the time to do that is mid-decade, before the political realities of redistricting raise their heads, he believes.
The Utah Legislature will next redistrict in 2021.