WASHINGTON Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told a U.S. House subcommittee Thursday that Utah would take a "fair and objective" approach in drawing new congressional districts for the state, if required to do so to gain an extra seat in the House of Representatives.
A pending bill would create an at-large seat for Utah until the 2010 Census is completed and would give the District of Columbia a House vote. But a key lawmaker wants to change the at-large element for the Utah seat and instead create four districts for the state.
Huntsman told the House Constitution Subcommittee that he prefers the at-large seat as it stands in the bill now. The measure would create a fourth seat for Utah that would represent the whole state until the 2012 election.
"I consider that a significant benefit, because redistricting which is always a difficult, time-consuming and politically costly process would be especially undesirable at this point in time, less than four years before the next decennial census," Huntsman said.
House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is likely to offer an amendment taking away the at-large status and calling for four districts in Utah. His spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said the chairman wants Utahns to each have only one representative, like residents of other states, and creating the at-large seat would give each Utahn two representatives.
Huntsman told the subcommittee that the bill would give Utah the additional House seat it "should have received" after the 2000 Census. The measure "rights the wrongs that were committed in the 2000 Census, benefits those who suffered most as a result of those wrongs, and does so in a way that makes sense," he said.
The governor briefly outlined the state's problem with the 2000 Census, when the federal government failed to count Utah residents living abroad, most on missions from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Utah fell 857 people short to get a new congressional seat.
The census also used a counting method that the state believes violated the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state's arguments in a 2002 decision.
Huntsman said the court's decision diminished representation among Utah's three congressional districts, cheated the state of additional committee assignments and resulted in a loss of seniority that would have been gained had the seat been created after the 2000 Census.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., asked Huntsman whether Utah would be able to handle redistricting into four districts. Huntsman said he could not speak for the state Legislature, but some maps left over from redistricting after the 2000 Census included a possible fourth district, and could be used.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, pointed out that the state has changed since the last census, so he would hope those in charge of redistricting could use updated numbers. And if the state had to reassign districts, he added, "there is not much that can be done" to squeeze out Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
"How do you draw a district in Utah that is more Republican than the one that he has?" Cannon said.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said the bill could not pass Congress without the Utah component in it. Davis and Norton gained Republican support for the bill by adding the seat for Utah, which would more than likely bring a Republican seat to balance out the District's almost certain Democratic vote.
Davis said Huntsman made clear that he "doesn't want to play any games" with redistricting, if it were required.
But three other witnesses at Thursday's hearing had problems with the bill. No one objected to the District getting a vote in the House, but they questioned whether creating a House seat for D.C. would violate the Constitution.
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