A group working to put an initiative on the ballot to create an independent state redistricting commission put some teeth in their effort his week when they filed a legal challenge against the state on the price tag associated with the effort.
The lawsuit challenges the $1 million-plus operating cost that the Governors Office of Planning and Budget says a non-legislative redistricting commission would require.
Fair Boundaries, a nonpartisan citizen group, held the last of eight public hearings Thursday evening to inform Utah voters about, and take their input on, an initiative to create an independent, 11-member commission to tackle the task of redrawing congressional and state legislative districts following the 2010 census. Fair Boundaries board member, Mary Bishop, said participants in the meetings have registered overwhelming support of the idea.
"Once we explain the initiative and how it will change the redistricting process, the thing we've been hearing is 'where can I sign up?'" Bishop said.
Bishop said the initiative seeks to eliminate partisan politics from the process of creating new boundaries for voting districts by creating a panel consisting of appointees from the Utah League of Cities and Towns, Utah Association of Counties, the Utah State Board of Education and qualified citizens. The panel members would establish new boundaries based on a set of criteria that would make population equity on par with a list including minimizing dividing cities, working to keep communities of common interest intact and identifying and utilizing natural borders and barriers.
Gigi Brandt of the Utah League of Women Voters said the new process would go a long way to eliminate the current practice of legislators choosing their voters by setting their own districts.
"Redistricting is an intensely political process," Brandt said. "Incumbents have been creating safe seats for themselves…What's good for political parties is not necessarily good for citizens."
Lisa Watts Baskin, a former Utah legislative research attorney who filed the motion on behalf of Fair Boundaries, said not only is the current process flawed, but so is the price state officials claim is associated with taking redistricting out of the hands of legislators.
"Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck proposed a piece of legislation last session that would have created an independent commission and the price tag…determined by the legislative fiscal analyst, was a little over $250,000," Baskin said. "Where did the other $750,000 come from?"
Baskin said the infrastructure for performing the redistricting is already essentially in place, and the only way the state could come up with such a large number is if it plans on performing a parallel effort with an independent commission, a move she said undermines the spirit of the initiative.
"Even with a legislative rejection, lawmakers would have to abide by the matrix we outline in the initiative in making their own boundaries," Baskin said.
The gathering of signatures for the initiative effort is now on hold until the legal matter is resolved, Baskin said. The state Supreme Court has 30 days to rule on the motion, which was filed July 7.
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