LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers wrapped up a special session Thursday by approving new congressional, legislative and other political district boundaries.
Gov. Pete Ricketts immediately signed the package of legislation, which passed with an emergency clause, meaning that the redrawn districts will take effect Friday.
Lawmakers had aimed to finish the once-a-decade redistricting process by Thursday so that counties, school districts and other local subdivisions have time to redraw their election districts, and so local election officials can make changes to voting precincts.
The deadline also gives potential candidates time to decide whether to run for office. Candidates can start filing on Jan. 5 for the May 10 primary election.
The pandemic delayed the release of 2020 U.S. Census data, which drives redistricting, putting lawmakers under an intense time crunch for map drawing and negotiations.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the Republican chairwoman of the Redistricting Committee, praised colleagues and legislative staff for their hard work in getting the job done within a compressed timetable.
“It’s been a hard month for everyone,” she said. “Everyone had to give, in an incredibly tight framework, and I thank you all.”
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, said this was the most transparent and public redistricting process ever in Nebraska, despite the difficulties of getting information out in a timely manner.
“This was a very frustrating process; it was a process, but it got done,” he said.
Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, one of nine committee members, called the process long and difficult, saying it “entailed some gamesmanship, with all sides jockeying for position.”
“Although there are likely 49 of us who would prefer something slightly different, at the end of the day, I believe the bills passed reflect a compromise that is fair to all Nebraskans,” he said in a text message.
Under the new congressional plan, all of Douglas County remained in the 2nd District, along with western Sarpy County. The more rural Saunders County was added, moving out of the 1st District to the 2nd.
Gretna, Springfield and Papillion’s southern neighborhoods stayed with the Omaha-dominated district, where they are currently, and will continue to be represented by Rep. Don Bacon.
La Vista and the bulk of Papillion were shifted out of the 2nd District and into the 1st District, represented by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base are already in the 1st District, where they would remain. Both Bacon and Fortenberry are Republicans.
The legislative plan moved District 36 from central Nebraska to western Sarpy County. The change means that State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg will not represent the people who elected him during his last year in office. He is term-limited.
But the shift of population from rural Nebraska to its urban areas, especially the Omaha metro area, meant that a legislative district had to be moved. Williams agreed to the change so lawmakers could get the redistricting done.
Earlier this week, some Democratic senators objected to recent changes made to the legislative map, which included moving some Lincoln neighborhoods into rural districts.
Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln was the most outspoken critic of the changes. After the session ended Thursday, he expressed his disappointment on Twitter.
The Nebraska Democratic Party had shared a press release in which Wayne praised the transparency of the process, and party chair Jane Kleeb said she was proud of senators’ work getting maps where Democrats can “compete and win.”
“No question there are districts drawn to try and weaken the power of Democrats in various parts of the state,” Kleeb said. “We call on the grassroots to join us in focusing our time on organizing, registering voters and building bridges between rural and urban voters.”
Hansen rejected the party’s assessment.
“The process we just went through shouldn’t be praised, and I am disappointed that my own party wants to publicly declare otherwise,” he tweeted. “Yes, plenty of people I know and like worked hard, but at the end of the day that doesn’t matter if the maps are bad.”
Although he voted for the legislative redistricting bill, Sen. Adam Morfeld — a Lincoln Democrat on the Redistricting Committee — said he wasn’t happy with the Lincoln maps.
He would’ve preferred to bring in a second senator to the state’s urban areas, he said, but that wasn’t the reality and he wasn’t going to leave the negotiating table because of it.
“The legislative maps required a ton of compromise — compromise that I didn’t always like,” Morfeld said. “In the end, we had to pass maps so candidates would be able to announce and people would know who their representatives are.”
The legislative map received final approval on a 37-7 vote, with opposition coming mostly from Democrats, but also from two senators who didn’t want rural Nebraska to lose representation.
In the lead-up to the redistricting process, groups representing rural interests implored senators to maintain as many rural districts as possible — a point the Nebraska Farm Bureau noted Thursday.
“We recognize there is an ongoing shift in population in our state from rural to urban population centers. With that in mind, our ask of the Legislature in the redistricting process was for the body to recognize the importance of maintaining rural voices in this effort,” Mark McHargue, the group’s president, said in a statement.
“While not perfect, we feel the results of the Legislature’s efforts largely respected our ask, for the betterment of our entire state. The fact that senators came together to reach an agreement so our state can move forward is positive.”
In addition to congressional and legislative maps, the Legislature also passed redrawn maps for Public Service Commission districts, Supreme Court districts, State Board of Education districts and Board of Regents districts. They also passed a bill to fund the special session.