Thursday, December 1, 2011

Redistricting plans enter last phase

Corporations Committee readies two state plans

       Wyoming’s legislative redistricting effort will take the stage again next week in what could be the last meeting of the committee given the task of  drawing new boundaries before the February session.
       Or it might not be the last meeting.  But the Joint Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee will work next Monday and Tuesday (Dec. 5 and 6) in Room302 at the Capitol to finalize its proposal to the Legislature.
       Redistricting – the process of periodically redrawing district lines to equalize district populations – takes place every 10 years following the federal census. The 2010 Census revealed considerable growth in the energy boom counties, particularly Campbell and Sublette counties, and in Teton County. Those numbers also found that population had declined in other counties, mostly in northeastern Wyoming and the Big Horn Basin.
       Districts must shift accordingly, though legislators have considerable discretion in doing so.
       As it did in 2001, the Legislature’s Management Council handed the job to the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee. In its first big decision, the committee voted in April to maintain the current structure of the Legislature with 60 House seats and 30 Senate seats. It also adopted guiding principles that include respecting county lines as much as possible, keeping districts contiguous and as compact as possible, and recognizing “communities of interest” – though the committee has not specifically defined that term.
       Over the summer, the committee held more than a dozen community meetings around the state. Those meetings largely were attended by sitting legislators, county clerks, and county commissioners. Using a web-based tool made available on the Legislature’s website, various regional plans have been developed redrawing the lines. Most of the state’s county clerks got together and drew up a full plan for the state that had been the only complete plan available. But at its last meeting the committee itself put together those regional proposals, then made a few adjustments of its own. Two working proposals resulted and can be seen on the LSO website.
       The ESPC attended many of the meetings intent on making sure the committee sticks to the principle of one person, one vote, and that it maintains a legislative district in Fremont County created in 2002 which holds a majority of Native Americans. The federal Voting Rights Act protects significant minority populations, in this case Native Americans, by prohibiting dilution of their vote by splitting them up among several districts. The committee has adhered to both principles.

       Gerrymander in western Wyoming
       But there still has been considerable tension. Growth in Sublette County gives it more than enough residents to form a single House district within its boundaries. But Sublette County was involved in a “gerrymandering” imposed in 2002 when northern and eastern areas of the county, including Pinedale, were combined in a district extending from south Wilson in Teton County through northern Lincoln County.
       The Wilson and Pinedale residents have been clear that they don’t share a significant community of interest and want to be separated. One proposal to do just that would have redrawn district lines in a way that left the House District 20 representative outside the district.
       A counter proposal was developed by southwestern Wyoming Sens. Marty Martin, a Democrat, and Stan Cooper, a Republican. It maintains the district combining Pinedale with Wilson. The Corporations committee favored the Martin-Cooper plan when it met in October.
       It appears to be impossible, or nearly so, to divide the population of northwestern Wyoming without splitting counties. The Teton plan that ended the Wilson-Pinedale gerrymander requires maintaining an existing district the combines Dubois and parts of northern Fremont County with Teton County. There’s a relatively strong community of interest argument, however, since both those local economies rely heavily on tourism and recreation.
       The committee heard at a Lander meeting that Dubois wants to be connected to the rest of Fremont County. Subsequently, other legislators say there’s a substantial number of Dubois residents who favor the link to Teton County.
        There’s also a struggle over redrawing lines in northeastern and eastern Wyoming. Campbell County grew enough to add another House seat. Population declined in relation to the rest of the state elsewhere in the region, meaning a seat will likely shift. The question is how this will be done. Will the Legislature allow Campbell County to be relatively self-contained like Albany, Laramie and Natrona counties? Or will the Campbell population be carved away to maintain something closer to the status quo?
       The two committee proposals on the LSO site show distinctly different approaches to resolving these shifts in eastern Wyoming.
       Each of the various plans will make some happy and others angry. Part of the problem is that roughly 70 percent of the Census blocks in Wyoming have no one living in them in them at all. (Redistricting rules allow dividing counties, cities, towns, and precincts but prohibit splitting a Census block.) As a result, a few districts, just as they are now, will be bigger than some eastern states. One district that encompasses a large part of Carbon County will be stretched across Sweetwater County to Farson to bring the district up to the necessary population level. There’s a lot of empty Red Desert between Rawlins and Eden.

       Plenty of action ahead
       The committee could finalize its redistricting bill at the coming meeting or schedule a final meeting prior to the session.
        And the session may bring other proposals. In a budget session, non-budget bills require a two-thirds vote of approval for introduction in either the House or the Senate. But that’s not true of redistricting bills. Any member can bring a proposal to apportion the Legislature and introduce it without a vote. Such bills likely will be referred to the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.