Sparks fly over redrawing legislative district lines
ST. PAUL -- One of the most significant, and least noticed, jobs of the Minnesota Legislature is drawing up new legislative district lines, and it drew sparks Tuesday night.
After about 30 Minnesotans told the House Redistricting Committee their thoughts of a House Republican proposal, Democrats complained that the 24 hours since the plan was released was too little time to consider it. And they said Republicans ignored the testimony.
"You had no intent of producing a bipartisan plan," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, told committee Chairwoman Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "You had no intent of listening to the concerns of the dozens of state residents who came here."
Anderson fired back.
"Within four months' time you have provided me with one comment. One. And I did that," Anderson told Marquart. "If I would wait four more months to get one more comment, we would never have a plan."
The plan passed the committee 7-5, with Republicans behind the plan and Democrats against it.
The first person to testify about proposed new legislative district lines called the Republican-drawn map "gerrymandering."
That upset Anderson.
"I do not appreciate that," Anderson said, then gaveled down the crowd when it began applauding a Democrat who told Anderson to allow people to testify "without arguing with them."
The exchanges pointed out emotions associated with redrawing political district lines. Redistricting sets the stage for elections for the next decade.
"How the state is redistricted will probably have the most long-term impact of anything we do this year," said Marquart, who teaches high school government classes.
There are doubts whether the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton can get the job done.
Dayton says he needs strong bipartisan support before he signs a redistricting bill, but Democrats did not like the initial Republican offering. Especially aggravating to Democrats was being given just 24 hours to look over the proposed new legislative map.
"Republicans are rushing through a map with little-to-no time for public input, no time to work out potentially costly and confusing problems with where district lines are drawn, and no time for the democratic process to unfold," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, who is the House Redistricting Committee's top Democrat.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said that he does not understand how Democrats can complain about the Republican plan when they offered no alternative of their own.
District maps reflect the movement of rural residents into cities, leaving rural Minnesota with larger districts to meet the federal one-person, one-vote criteria that requires each district to have about the same number of people. That means fewer rural lawmakers are in the Legislature after each redistricting.
In this redistricting season's first plan, the House GOP proposal set up three new rural districts pitting incumbents against each other (if they run again):
-- Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.
-- Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock.
-- Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls.
Overall, 10 new districts would force incumbents to run against each other. Also, the House proposal has an open House seat in the Wadena area, one of 10 districts without incumbents.
About 39,000 people live in each House district. Two House districts make a Senate district.
Redistricting follows each decade's census, as required by a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that elective office districts must contain nearly the same population.
The first redistricting plan for state legislative districts came from House Republicans. A House plan for drawing new federal congressional district lines is to come later.
Senate Republicans are expected to release their redistricting plans later this week or adopt the House proposal.
Murphy asked the committee to take more time to improve the plan so both Democrats and Republicans could support it. Anderson, however, said the committee held 14 hearings before the map was released and obtained plenty of public input.
Besides political disputes, another complication could affect redistricting. Lawmakers are in session until May 23, and GOP leaders want next year's session to begin in March, after a Feb. 21, 2012, deadline for passing a redistricting plan. Marquart said that means lawmakers have less than three weeks to agree on a plan among themselves and Dayton.
For Marquart, the main question now is how to reach a bipartisan agreement that Dayton can accept.
"I know that is a long shot," Marquart said. "It has not been done very often in the past."
If lawmakers and Dayton can agree on a plan, avoiding the courts making the decision, it would be the first time in 100 years, Marquart said.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.