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Utah House redraws congressional map on governor's request

Published October 4, 2011 6:43 am

Politics • At Gov. Gary Herbert's request, the House takes congressional map back to drawing board.
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The state Senate passed on Monday a controversial "pizza slice" plan on how to draw new congressional districts, but House leaders are working on a significantly redrawn version at the request of Gov. Gary Herbert that would increase the urban-rural mix of districts even more.

Democrats, meanwhile, formally served notice to the Legislature that they will probably sue over such "pizza slice" plans that carve up Salt Lake County and combine the pieces with large swaths of rural Utah. So lawmakers were warned by their attorneys not to destroy any communications about redistricting because they may become part of that lawsuit.

That came on a day when both houses also passed a redistricting plan for the state school board; the Senate passed a map for its own districts and sent it to the House; and the House passed a map for its districts and sent it to the Senate.

Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, Senate chairman of the Legislature's Redistricting Committee, said Senate leaders hope that all redistricting plans will receive final approval on Tuesday, but some House leaders said it may take through Wednesday.

The biggest disagreement to work out is over the congressional map.

The Senate voted 18-9 to adopt the original committee-passed version that would cut Salt Lake County into three slices and join two with vast rural areas, and join a third district with western, rural Utah County. It was opposed by all seven Senate Democrats plus Sens. Casey Anderson, R-Cedar City, and Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden.

Okerlund told the Senate that the plan ensures that each member of Congress would need to worry about rural and urban issues, and would represent the entire state. Democrats say it is an attempt to dilute their votes in Salt Lake County and increase odds that all members of Congress will be Republicans.

"I find it irresponsible to break up Salt Lake County this way," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who noted that it even slices up her hometown of Holladay three ways. Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, added, "We don't need rural representation in every district."

Meanwhile, House leaders said they are redrawing that map at the request of Herbert because he did not like how the original map drew the new 4th Congressional District, confining it just to western Salt Lake and Utah counties.

"He felt like it did not have enough rural land in it," said Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, House chairman of the Redistricting Committee, who said leaders are still negotiating its exact boundaries.

He said that 4th district — where no incumbent currently lives — was redrawn over the weekend so it would include portions of Juab, Millard, Beaver and Sevier counties.

Those counties previously had been drawn into the 2nd Congressional District, where Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, lives. Sumsion said the 2nd District was redrawn to include areas to the south and east, much like Matheson's current district.

The redrawing would also move Tooele County into the 1st Congressional District represented by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Lawmakers did not provide an exact map of what they are considering, saying it is still under negotiation.

Okerlund said the Redistricting Committee plans to meet Tuesday morning to look at the new House-drawn plan, and possibly some plans that Democrats have been discussing. Senate President Michael Waddoups said if the House is serious about its new plan, it will pass it and send it back to the Senate, "and then we'll debate it."

Of note, Morgan Philpot — the last Republican to run against Matheson — attacked Herbert publicly last week, saying he was pressuring lawmakers to draw a district that is more friendly for Matheson, so that he would not run for governor against Herbert.

The governor has denied that, and said he is merely pushing for a map that is fair to all.

It is unclear how much more friendly the House map being drawn at Herbert's behest may be for Matheson. But it does remove Tooele County from his proposed district, which would be difficult for Matheson because of his fights with EnergySolutions over low-level radioactive waste disposal.

Meanwhile, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis sent a letter to the Legislature formally warning that the party may sue over redistricting, and asked it to preserve all records and communications.

"We don't want to sue. But when things are this bad, you have to sue," Dabakis told The Tribune.

He said talk of changes in the congressional maps mean "maybe they have seen the light and how upset people are in the state — not just Democrats. I hope they will change it and make it better."

Waddoups said that warning may come a little late for him. He said attorneys previously told him to "delete early and often," and he routinely deletes emails as soon as he is done with them. He said that he already deleted all his email about redististricting. "I deleted dozens of emails over the weekend," he said.

The Senate passed new boundaries for itself with only one vote in opposition — from Minority Leader Romero. He said new lines will unfairly eliminate one Democratic seat, by putting him and Jones in a new district together. He said it was not necessary to draw lines that way. Romero has already announced that he plans to run for mayor of Salt Lake County.

That Senate map has also been criticized by reform groups as being too protective of incumbents. For example, they complain that distant Tooele and Brigham City were put in the same district by connecting them through the Great Salt Lake to help protect incumbent Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City.

After meeting behind close doors in party caucuses most of the day, the House finally voted 74-1 in the evening to pass a map for its own boundaries. The lone dissenter was Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City. She is one of 10 incumbents — three Democrats and seven Republicans — drawn into districts with other incumbents.

Several members said that some of those incumbents had pushed changes that would put them in districts of their own, or improve their chances for re-election.

For example, Reps. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, and LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, were drawn into the same new district. While they remain together in the same new district, plans were tweaked to add some areas near where Christensen lives instead of placing him at the extreme edge of the new district, which may improve his chances for re-election.

Salt Lake County loses two state House seats in that new map because its population did not grow as fast as other areas. One of those seats is essentially shifted to the St. George area, and the other went to Utah County. Weber County also lost a House seat, which was essentially shifted to rural counties.

Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.






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