HELENA – The commission charged with drawing Montana’s legislative districts decided Tuesday to adopt a new statewide approach in developing a map rather than doing it piecemeal by region.
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission made the decision as it hopes to have a proposed map ready for public review by year’s end. Past efforts have been mired in controversy amid charges that one side or the other hijacked the process and gerrymandered the map.
The commission’s chairman, retired Supreme Court Justice James Regnier, said he hopes the new process will avoid such conflict. Part of the plan includes having much of the work done by nonpartisan legislative staff.
Regnier said the advantage of the statewide approach is that members of the public will be able to see the whole map and evaluate its worth well in advance of any final decision. In the past, such a review was made difficult when regional proposals were rolled out in local meetings.
But he said partisan maps could very well be considered since members of the public are allowed to bring forward proposals, and individual commission members are also allowed to put forward ideas.
Those partisan interests are nearly certain to arise.
Joe Lamson, a member appointed by Democratic lawmakers, said the party has hired an internal coordinator to monitor the redistricting process.
Regnier said, however, that he expects most of the focus will be placed on proposed maps put forward by staff based on legal guidelines such as keeping communities intact while keeping the size of districts similar.
The commission has two members chosen by Republicans and two chosen by Democrats. The fifth and deciding member, Regnier, was chosen by the Supreme Court after the group could not agree on a chairman.
They are charged with drawing 100 new state House districts and 50 state Senate districts using 2010 Census data. The districts they draw will take effect in the 2014 elections after the Legislature approves them.
One of the commission members chosen by Republican lawmakers, Montana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Jon Bennion, said he is pleased so far with the way the panel has been moving forward.
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