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Utah lawmakers ready to resume redistricting battle

Published October 17, 2011 8:35 am

All parties involved say it's a foregone conclusion as sides return to the table Monday.
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The curtain is set to rise Monday on a second — and perhaps final — act of raw political drama as a multisided brawl continues among House Republicans, Senate Republicans, Democrats and reform groups over how to redraw Utah's new congressional boundaries.

The future of parties, incumbents and would-be candidates hangs in the balance.

Lawmakers hit a stalemate during a special session of the Legislature earlier this month, and called a two-week timeout to seek compromise. They say a final solution has yet to be achieved, but some things are becoming more clear.

Most importantly, all sides acknowledge the final map will split Salt Lake County into multiple slices — diluting Democratic votes there and helping Republican candidates statewide — as desired by the Legislature's huge GOP majority. Potential compromise plans now being circulated concede that, but Democrats are trying to shave down big GOP margins a bit.

Several interesting subplots are unfolding.

Democrats have threatened to sue over what they say are maps unfairly drawn to achieve 60 percent or more GOP majorities in each district. Another subplot is whether Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, will decide his new district is so unfriendly that he will run instead for governor or the Senate.

A related drama has emerged because some Republicans have charged publicly that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has asked lawmakers to make a friendlier district for Matheson so he will seek reelection and not challenge Herbert instead (which the governor has denied).

Another big subplot: Will House Republicans open their caucus meetings to the public as they discuss maps? Senate Republicans worried two weeks ago that secretive work by the House behind closed doors could rekindle the kind of public furor that erupted earlier this year when the Legislature quickly gutted open-records laws with little public input.

Monday's work will begin in the House, where its GOP caucus will consider whether to endorse a map passed earlier this month by the Senate and the joint Redistricting Committee.

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, House chairman of the committee, said House members of his group decided during the two-week recess to discard a controversial map that the House had drawn and discussed behind closed doors. It had proposed districts that were even more heavily Republican — and harder on Matheson — than the Senate map did.

Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, the Senate chairman of the committee, said Senate Republicans disliked the House map and the fact that it had not been vetted publicly. He said senators are standing by the map they passed.

So Sumsion said he and other leaders will ask House members if they will accept a slightly tweaked version of that Senate plan (titled "Sumsion 15" on redistrictutah.com). It splits Salt Lake County into three slices, and joins two of them with vast rural areas. The third slice in western Salt Lake County would be joined with western Utah County. A fourth district would be created in northern Utah.

If House Republicans choose not to support it, Sumsion has publicly posted a possible middle-ground map for consideration ( titled "Sumsion 16").

It would keep much of the Senate map, but expand the new 4th District more into rural areas. That district in western Salt Lake and Utah counties would be stretched to include part of Juab County and all of Sanpete and Emery counties.

Sumsion said he does not know which way the caucus will vote. "It could be a really short day, or a really long one. I'm not sure yet."

Democrats hate both maps that Sumsion said the House will consider. Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said his party did an analysis using partisan data of both maps, "and each of the districts in them is between 62 and 65 percent Republican. We've been willing to compromise, but it's obvious from their maps that they do not want to."

Dabakis said if either map is adopted, his party will sue. "If they don't want to spend their time in depositions and explaining what they did behind closed doors, they should consider compromising. … We don't want to sue. But considering what they have done so far, they deserve it."

The Democratic Party is supporting a potential compromise map based on one drawn and submitted to the committee by a citizen, David Garber of Provo. It had been one of six finalist maps the committee considered.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, tweaked it to decrease the population variance between districts, posted it online (titled "Rep. King-Garber") and emailed it to all legislators asking them to consider it as a compromise.

King said he personally would prefer a plan that creates three urban districts along the Wasatch Front surrounded by a large "doughnut" rural district, but concedes that Republicans will eventually adopt a plan to divide Salt Lake County into pizza slices and Garber's plan is the most fair of that sort he has seen.

"It splits no county more than two ways. Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties are each split twice. Every other county remains whole," King said. "This is a citizen map that makes sense. It's also a compromise between what partisan Democrats and Republicans want as their dream product."

While that map was once a finalist, Republicans went for other options instead — and Sumsion said the Republican majority is far more interested in the two maps he will present to the House caucus.

Reform groups earlier had also pushed against "pizza-slice" plans that would carve up Salt Lake County into three or four slices, saying it made sense to keep it as whole as possible. They too, however, have acknowledged that such a plan is inevitable. Several of them endorsed the Garber map as a compromise in a committee hearing during the recess.

Until a plan is adopted, several would-be candidates are left hanging about whether they will run and where. That includes several state lawmakers who are considering runs for Congress, including Reps. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman (who has already said he is running in the new 4th District, whatever its boundaries may be); David Clark, R-Santa Clara; and Chris Herrod, R-Provo.

Of note, state law prohibits legislators from receiving donations while they are session — so they may not raise campaign funds until the special session ends. —

What's next

The Legislature reconvenes Monday at 9 a.m. to discuss how to redraw congressional boundaries. After hitting a stalemate earlier this month, lawmakers recessed for two weeks to seek compromise. A final solution has not yet been reached, but most concede it will cut Salt Lake County into multiple slices to dilute Democratic votes there and help Republican candidates statewide. Maps being considered are available at redistrictutah.com.




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