LINCOLN — A state lawmaker is trying again to take politics out of the job of drawing up voting districts for the U.S. House and the Nebraska Legislature.
State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber said the Cornhusker State should utilize a redistricting process similar to that in Iowa, where members of an independent commission rather than elected lawmakers draw up new district boundaries following each U.S. Census.
Karpisek has introduced a bill that is identical to one killed in 2012.
“We're a very nonpartisan unicameral, and this is one of the times when it becomes partisan,” said Karpisek, a Democrat. “I try to keep that partisanship out.”
But the Karpisek plan was panned by the leader of the Nebraska Republican Party.
J.L. Spray, the GOP state chairman, said the proposal to create an independent commission was “a silly waste of money and time.”
“There's no easy way to redistrict, and it would be a mistake for the legislative branch of government to abdicate their job to do redistricting,” Spray said.
Right now the Legislature leaves the task of redistricting to a special committee of lawmakers.
Redistricting is done every 10 years, just after the U.S. Census is completed, and focuses mainly on the state's three congressional districts and 49 districts for state senators.
It also redraws the voting districts for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Public Service Commission and State Board of Education.
Though some say there's no assurance that an independent commission would do a better job, critics say that when lawmakers perform the task, it's guided by politics. New districts, they say, are drawn to protect incumbents and favor one political party or another.
Under Legislative Bill 976, a six-member “independent redistricting advisory commission” would be appointed by the Legislature to undertake the job. Two members would be appointed from each congressional district, one Republican and one Democrat.
The commission would be barred from considering past election results, the political makeup of an area or where any candidates live. Its goal would be to create districts of equal population that are compact and preserve municipal boundaries and the core of prior districts.
Currently, 21 states use some form of an independent commission for redistricting.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat who introduced the redistricting bill in 2012, said the current system fosters distrust and animosity in the Legislature.
If an independent commission did the job, he said, its only guiding principles would be to create districts of equal population.
Karpisek pointed to the congressional maps of Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Iowa districts, drawn by an independent group, have smooth and squared-off boundaries. Pennsylvania districts, drawn by the Legislature, look like a group of amoebas at a demolition derby.
He said when politicians handle redistricting, the new districts are often heavily packed to favor one party or the other, creating safe districts for candidates and assuring that they will be victorious.
Karpisek said that discourages candidates from opposing parties to run. It also discourages compromise, because there's no incentive for representatives to seek middle ground when they have to cater mainly to one party.
“Around here, there's a lot of compromise,” Karpisek said of the Legislature. “It's the right way to do things.”
Two years ago, Avery's independent redistricting bill didn't make it out of committee. It was killed by the Legislature's executive board.
But that panel has changed significantly since then. It consisted of seven Republicans and two Democrats in 2012; now the makeup is five Republicans, three Democrats and one independent.
Karpisek noted that when Avery introduced the bill, it was only a year after the Legislature had redrawn the lines of congressional and legislative districts.
It was too soon, he said, to reopen the emotional issue.
In 2011, redistricting led to some controversial outcomes, including moving Bellevue out of the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha. Bellevue is now in the 1st District, which is dominated by Lincoln and rural eastern Nebraska.
In 1991 the Legislature's redistricting plan was challenged in court, forcing lawmakers to return for a special session and redraw legislative districts.