New Legislative Districts to be Drawn Amid Partisan Divide

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – New legislative districts that take into account population shifts from the latest Census will begin to take shape this week when a redistricting commission starts making tough votes amid partisan divide over proposed boundaries.

Republicans who have spent a decade complaining about alleged legislative gerrymandering say they are hoping for compromise this week when the redistricting commission starts drawing new House district lines.

The lead Democrat on the panel, however, counters that the current map has been fair to both political parties — and he is hoping to carry over aspects of it to the new plan.

The redistricting commission that was appointed more than three years ago has already toured the state taking public comment on four proposed new maps. There are three plans drawn by staff analysts: one emphasize lines between urban and rural areas, another prioritizes keeping political subdivisions intact, while another tries to keep population differences as small as possible.

The two Democrats on the panel proposed the fourth map, and it aims to keep similarities to the current districting plan that backers said ensures the legislature is competitive for both parties.

It is highly unlikely that any of the maps are adopted in entirety. Commissioners said they expect to hash out many new districts individually as they negotiate a final map, which will be used in November to draw Senate districts that must be comprised of two complete House districts.

The public will be able to comment on that final proposal before it goes to the legislature early next year for more comment. The panel can make adjustments after that, before submitting the final plan to the secretary of state so that election officials can use it for the 2014 elections — which will inevitably shake up the political landscape for many incumbents.

The stakes can be high for both parties. Two Republicans and two Democrats on the panel will be vying for the tie-breaking vote of former Supreme Court justice Jim Regnier.

Jon Bennion, a Republican appointee to the panel and government relations director at the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said Regnier has proven to be fair. The five scheduled days of meetings at the state Capitol are open to the public, but comment is limited since the commission has already twice toured the state gathering input.

“My hope is that everyone will be able to walk away from the table thinking they got a fair shake, but not perhaps everything they wanted,” Bennion said.

Bennion said he favors the map that keeps political boundaries, like county lines, intact in many rural places. But in some mixed urban-rural places like Lewis and Clark County, he favors adopting districts from the map that separates urban centers and suburban or rural areas into different districts.

“There are going to be a lot of controversial votes. But I think the chair will look for opportunities to find compromise, and he is the right person for the job,” Bennion said. “He has been a mediator and he has been a judge.”

A decade ago, Republicans felt that the tie-breaking vote on the panel always went to the Democrats. Ever since they have argued the resulting legislative districts help Democrats.

Joe Lamson, a Democratic appointee who helped draw those districts ten years ago, says the past districts were fair — arguing they helped both parties achieve majorities over the decade. He said that is his goal again, to make sure no party has exclusive control over the legislature.

“You would want to draw a legislature that is sort of a 50-50 thing and go back and forth between parties,” Lamson said.

The biggest changes could come in areas that gained population, like the Flathead Valley, and will be gaining new districts. Other eastern rural areas will lose districts. The districts must all be within three percent, or about 300 people, of the same population size.

Regnier said he is ready to manage the partisan divide on where to draw lines. Regnier said he hopes to find easier consensus in rural areas and with the mandated Indian districts before moving on to the tougher issues surrounding population centers.

“I will hope to move the commission to a consensus, whether I am successful at that remains to be seen,” he said. “I think the unknown, from my point of view, in my efforts to reach a compromise is that I am not sure yet what the priorities will be for each of the partisan sides of the panel.”

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