LINCOLN — Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers of Lincoln raised the possibility Tuesday that the special legislative session on redistricting could end early and without accomplishing its purpose.
If so, he said, lawmakers would have to take up the job of redrawing political district boundaries during the regular legislative session starting in January.
That, in turn, could force the state’s primary election to be delayed.
“That’s not the path we want to go down,” Hilgers said, “but that’s the path we may have to take to get it right. It is by far, my preferred route to get this done now.”
Hilgers delivered his message shortly after lawmakers gave first-round approval to two redistricting bills. The measures redraw boundaries for Nebraska Supreme Court judges and for the Public Service Commission.
They are perhaps the least contentious of the six sets of political districts that need to be redrawn following the 2020 federal Census.
Lawmakers stalled over proposed congressional district maps on Friday and over proposed legislative district maps Monday. Neither proposal, drawn by Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, could garner enough votes to overcome a filibuster.
Attempts to find compromise proposals have struck out so far, but Hilgers vowed that he and the leaders of the Redistricting Committee would spend the day talking with any senator who wanted to bring up issues.
Hilgers said the Legislature needs to give first-round approval to all six redistricting bills by the end of the day Saturday if they hope to finish by Sept. 30. If they do not meet that target, he would ask them to end the session and head home. He said he may adjourn the session even earlier if it becomes clear that no agreements can be reached.
“We are not going to stay in special session forever if we are not going to accomplish our goal,” he said.
Although there is no time limit on the special session, Hilgers said continuing to battle over redistricting is straining relationships among senators, delaying the preparation of important legislation and keeping senators away from their jobs and families.
Some lawmakers, at least, were not ready to give up on the session and more than one viewed Hilgers’ announcement as an attempt to spur negotiations.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams said he thinks redistricting needs to get done now because of the problems a delay would create for counties, school districts and other political subdivisions.
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue said she thought the speaker was trying to instill fear by raising the prospect of going home empty-handed. She said she would not want to put off redistricting now and take time away from the other important issues that need to be addressed during the regular session.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said he is more hopeful now than he was on Monday.
“We have a unique opportunity in front of us to get this done now,” he said. “I’m optimistic about finding a solution that’s workable.”
State senators were not the only ones who interpreted Hilgers’ remarks as a possible motivator.
Secretary of State Bob Evnen said he thinks the speaker was encouraging legislators to get the work done this week, not encouraging them to put it off until January.
If redistricting were delayed until 2022, though, it would disrupt the many deadlines and processes that govern elections ahead of a big election year, with all three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, half of state senate seats and all state constitutional offices — including a wide-open governor’s race — on the ballot.
After the state passes redrawn boundaries, counties use them to draw their lines and establish voting precincts, Evnen said, and other local subdivisions, such as school boards and city councils, can’t do their work until counties are done.
From the end of the Legislature’s work to when the filing window opens for candidates to run for office takes about three months, Evnen said. That’s where the Sept. 30 deadline came from, since the window to file next year is scheduled to open Jan. 5. Currently, the statewide primary election is expected to happen May 10.
If filing opens with the boundaries as-is, Evnen said, he’d anticipate legal challenges.
Local elections officials are “very concerned” about the potential for a delay, Evnen said.
“These are really good, hardworking people who want to do the very best to conduct safe, secure elections in the state,” he said. “They’ll do everything they can, but there would be a lot of concern if the Legislature doesn’t get this done this week.”
He doesn’t blame the Legislature, he said, but rather the U.S. Census Bureau for missing its deadline and failing to provide census data on time. Still, he doesn’t know how he would address the delay.
“I encourage the Legislature in the strongest possible terms to complete their work this week, because completing it in the next legislative session would make it exceptionally difficult to conduct the elections in 2022 ... if not virtually impossible,” Evnen said.
World-Herald Staff Writer Sara Gentzler contributed to this report.