Redistricting Panel Works on Senate Boundaries

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The panel charged with drawing new legislative districts meets Friday to combine 100 state House districts drafted earlier this year into 50 state Senate districts.

The redistricting commissioner is drawing a new legislative map that accommodates population growth and shifts found in the recent U.S. census. The panel is made up of two Republican appointees, two Democratic appointees and an impartial chairman.

Republicans said their plan tries to pair House districts into Senate seats that respect county lines and geographic boundaries while maintaining communities of interest.

Democrats on the panel said their proposal keeps communities of natural interest together — while making sure each party has a shot at running the Montana state Senate.

In August, the panel finished drawing new House districts that keep population differences between districts very small, with not much more than a 1 percent deviation between larger and smaller districts. It was a contentious process that saw plenty of partisan differences resolved by Chairman Jim Regnier, a former Montana Supreme Court justice.

He handed some victories to Republicans. The new House map shows Havre only has one House district, Butte lost a House seat, and the so-called Missoula “wagon wheel” of districts is dramatically altered. Also, Jefferson County received its own district separate from Butte.

Democrats, too, got some of what they wanted, such as retaining two Anaconda districts and largely getting free reign in crafting the Helena and Great Falls districts.

Regnier will again have to wade through different partisan proposals on Friday.

“There is more disagreement than there is agreement,” said Republican appointee Jon Bennion, pointing to key differences in urban areas.

The Republican plan, for instance, pairs a Livingston House district with another in Park County to make one Senate seat. He said the Democratic plan wrongly pairs the Livingston House seat with one in Bozeman. Bennion also faulted Democrats for trying to pair a Butte House seat with one in Jefferson County.

He said Republicans are trying to respect political subdivisions, such as county lines, in other places as well.

Democratic appointee Joe Lamson said their proposal is focusing on another criteria aimed at keeping communities of interest together.

Lamson said his side’s proposal also aims to keep the partisan split in the state Senate close, and ensures that each party has a chance at gaining a majority of seats. He said such a split makes sense given close results in recent statewide elections.

“We are interested in creating a Senate that reflects the characteristics of the Montana voting population,” Lamson said.

The committee also plans to assign sitting holdover senators to the new Senate districts Friday.

The commission will finalize the map early next year after getting reaction from the Legislature. It will then be used by election officials beginning with the 2014 election.

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