Utah Capitol 37

Legislative leaders and representatives from the Better Boundaries group are still involved in talks over changes to the voter-approved anti-gerrymandering initiative. But, lawmakers deny there is any move to repeal the measure as supporters have claimed.

As first reported by UtahPolicy.com, lawmakers and backers of Prop. 4 have been quietly negotiating for months to find a compromise acceptable to both groups to alter the law that sets up an independent commission to redraw political boundaries during the once-a-decade redistricting process set to begin next year.

After talks between the two groups broke down on Thursday of last week, Better Boundaries sent a press release and multiple fundraising emails claiming that lawmakers were aiming to “repeal” the initiative that was passed by voters in 2018 with 50.3% support.

“It’s a little disappointing,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “We’ve been negotiating faithfully with this group for months and they caught us a little off guard.”

Sources close to the negotiations tell UtahPolicy.com that a full repeal of Prop. 4 was discussed when the two groups began negotiating shortly after the initiative was passed, but it has not been a serious topic since early in the 2019 legislative session.

“We set that side a year ago and haven’t discussed it seriously since,” said one source with knowledge of the discussions.

One source involved in the negotiations called claims from Better Boundaries that the legislature is pushing for a repeal “false, misleading” and an attempt to gin up public opposition against any changes to the initiative.

“We have met and negotiated since last year, and have worked hard to address the constitutional issues and will even spend $1 million to fund this independent commission,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.

Representatives for Better Boundaries refused to answer questions about their claims that legislators are moving to repeal the bill when lawmakers emphatically deny that is the case. Instead, they only provided a generic statement via text message.

“Prop 4 has always been about accountability in the redistricting process. We are open to any dialogue that furthers these goals,” said Better Boundaries Executive Director Rebecca Chavez-Houck in a text message.

In addition to repeal, some lawmakers have advocated for a legal challenge to the law as they believe it would be struck down in the courts. Sources indicate that also is not a path lawmakers are seriously considering pursuing.

The repeal talk from Better Boundaries was even more puzzling for lawmakers since the two sides had come to an agreement on a number of issues. For example, the two sides had reportedly agreed to remove a provision requiring legislative staff to advise the commission, which could present a conflict of interest. Instead, the legislature will fund the independent commission with about $1 million to hire its own staff.

The final sticking point was a section establishing standards for both the independent redistricting commission and legislature to follow when drawing political boundaries. The initiative required the two entities to ignore where an incumbent lives or any partisan political data when drawing lines for a district. 

“We agree the commission should be able to establish whatever standards they want to adopt for purposes of doing their work,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. “They want us to put in statue standards that have not been upheld by the Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that drawing political boundaries that discriminate based on racial or ethnic grounds is unconstitutional. Previously, the Court has also said that partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution, but has not been able to set standards for what constitutes a partisan gerrymander. In 2019, the Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is an issue best left to the states and not the federal courts.

Legislators say the initiative uses ill-defined and amorphous terms such as “partisan symmetry” and even “gerrymandering,” so putting them into statute would create all sorts of legal headaches since nobody can provide them a concrete definition.

Legislative leaders say they’re hopeful that they’ll be able to come to a deal with Better Boundaries in the next few days.