- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska moved one step closer Monday to overhauling the process it uses to draw legislative and congressional districts in an effort to reduce direct political influence.

Lawmakers voted 30-5 to advance a bill that would create an independent redistricting commission to draw the maps, which lawmakers and the governor would have to approve.

Nebraska’s current system requires a legislative committee to propose new boundaries once every decade, after the census. Once the maps are drawn, they’re sent to lawmakers and eventually the governor for approval.

The process was criticized as overly partisan during the last redistricting in 2011, with Democrats accusing majority Republicans of gerrymandering and western Nebraska senators trying to keep a district despite a declining rural population.

The new proposal is a culmination of work by Republican Sen. John Murante of Gretna and Democratic Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha. Murante was a legislative staffer during the 2011 redistricting process, and Mello served on the redistricting committee.

Murante said the new proposal adheres to the constitutional requirement that lawmakers and the governor approve state political districts.

“We aren’t punting that responsibility,” he said. “We maintain that responsibility, but we’re doing it in a way that separates the maps from the politicians.”

Mello said the bill “sets the stage for more transparency and more confidence in the political process.”

Under the new plan, district maps would be drawn by a nine-member independent panel appointed by lawmakers from each of the state’s three congressional districts. No more than five could have the same political affiliation. The maps would also face scrutiny in multiple public hearings.

The system doesn’t eliminate all political considerations, but states with similar panels have had fewer complaints about gerrymandering. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts hasn’t said whether he supports the proposal.

Nebraska’s Legislature is officially nonpartisan, which prevents party leaders from exerting direct control over senators. Even so, Republicans outnumber Democrats 36-12, with one left-leaning independent.

Some conservative lawmakers objected to the bill, saying the duty of drawing the boundaries belongs to directly elected state senators.

“There’s politics in every single thing we do,” said Sen. Bill Kintner, a conservative Republican from Papillion. “The only difference is are we going to do it ourselves and stand behind it and put our name on it and say this is what we did? Or are we going to schlep it off to someone who’s unelected?”

Other senators who were in office during the 2011 redistricting process said the bill could reduce some the deep acrimony that plagued the debate.

“It wasn’t pleasant,” said Sen. Bob Krist, a self-described centrist Republican from Omaha. “It was contentious. Emotions were flaring high, and that could all be taken away from those who will be here during this next redistricting process.”

Moderate Republican Sen. Kathy Campbell said the debate was “one of the most rancorous” and partisan debates she has ever seen in the Legislature.

“I really did think several senators were going to come to fisticuffs,” she said.

Gavin Geis, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska, said the bill should help reassure voters that the system isn’t rigged.

“When somebody goes to vote, they should know the district they’re voting in wasn’t drawn so that a certain person gets voted into office or that a certain political party maintains power,” Geis said.

The next opportunity to draw new maps won’t happen until after the next census in 2020.


Associated Press writer Anna Gronewold contributed to this story.


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