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Group seeks neutral legislative redistricting plan

Group hopes to put commission-creating law before voters

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 9:02 p.m. MDT

A group saying it wants a "neutral" legislative redistricting plan drawn up following the 2010 census will run a citizen initiative petition aimed at setting up an "independent" commission.

Lisa Watts Baskin, a former GOP legislative candidate and former legislative attorney, says a group she's working with — Fair Boundaries Coalition — will soon file the paperwork to start collecting 99,000 voter signatures needed to put a proposed commission-creating law before voters next year.

Criticizing the Legislature's redistricting "is great rhetoric, great drum-beating for some," said Utah House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.

But Utahns have been "well served" by legislative redistricting since 1896 statehood, Clark said. And he hopes that this new group "will at least study" all the work that the Legislature itself does in "an open, yet political" process of redistricting.

The Legislature, controlled by Republicans, refused to vote on Democratic-sponsored bills in the 2009 session that would have set up an independent commission.

And just last week GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. formally told his political-reform citizen commission not to study legislative redistricting — saying he agreed with GOP legislative leadership that redistricting is an internal legislative branch function.

Watts Baskin says her group knows how difficult it is to gather the 99,000 signatures from the required state Senate districts needed to get a measure on the 2010 ballot.

"But if we don't do it now we have to wait another 10 years to fix" the current redistricting process, she said, which has been much criticized by some as letting legislators pick their constituents, not the other way around.

For a variety of reasons — including incumbent lawmakers redrawing their own state House and Senate districts — by far most of the turnover in the 104-member, part-time Legislature comes through voluntary retirements and deaths.

In the 2008 legislative elections, 91 percent of the House members and 82 percent of senators who ran for re-election won, a review by the Deseret News found.

But Clark, who chairs a National Conference of State Legislatures' committee on redistricting, said "there are volumes of settled case law" on how redistricting must be done, paying attention to communities of interest and many other factors besides new census population numbers.

Yes, Clark said, when it comes down to it legislators will decide whether a boundary line is moved "half a mile or so" this way or that in urban areas from what may be recommended by the Legislature's own redistricting committee.

"But you ask the Salt Lake County Council, or Idaho, both of which have so-called independent redistricting commissions" if politics still doesn't play some part in work there — it does and will do so, Clark said.

Even though Republicans hold huge majorities in the Utah Legislature, rank-and-file Republicans should still want the new commission, said Watts Basking. "Republicans want to be fair, too," she said. "We want to treat every citizen as an equal. And it is basically unfair to redistrict in a manner that helps incumbents."

The Utah Constitution says the Legislature every 10 years, following census updates, will redraw legislative, U.S. House and state school board districts.

Clark, one of the GOP leaders who politely asked Huntsman to butt out of redistricting and legislative ethics matters (and Huntsman told his reform commission to drop those two subjects), says the Legislature will set up a joint, bi-partisan legislative commission that will travel the state seeking public input on how new district boundaries should be drawn.

While that's fine — and has been done before, notes Watts Baskin — past redistricting has shown great favoritism to incumbents to the peril of regular citizens, she believes.

"It makes no sense that the small town of Randolph (Cache County), population 300, is divided down the middle of its Main Street," she said.

Tooele County is divided up several ways, with one of its representatives living in eastern Box Elder County and having to drive around the Great Salt Lake to visit constituents.

An independent commission would employ common sense redrawing guidelines, like considering economic connections, ethnic make-up and long-time ties among neighborhoods, she said.

Just one more example of so-called "gerrymandering" in 2001 — U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson's 2nd Congressional District, which was in Salt Lake County, was moved to only the eastern side of the county, and now includes counties to the east, southeast and southwest. In fact, the huge 2nd District, which stretches all the way from Salt Lake to Iron and Washington counties, in one of the largest geographic districts in the nation.

"But those who claim gerrymander, look how that turned out?" Clark said.

Matheson, the only Democrat in the Utah congressional delegation, has won re-election ever since.

In fact, Clark points to the "well done" four-seat U.S. House redistricting plan "adopted almost unanimously in the Legislature."

Clark said it's his intention not to allow that four-seat plan to be changed, should Utah get another seat before the 2012 election. In fact, Clark said the current four-seat plan should just be adopted in 2011 for the next 10 years — he believes it is basically fair and responsible.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com

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