LINCOLN — Nebraska needs to decide this year how the state will go about redrawing political boundaries in two years, a legislative committee was told Thursday.

“This is the year to do it. We don’t want to wait until 2020 when it is a political (election) year,” said State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha.

Fellow Omaha Sen. Sara Howard warned that failing to put some guidance in place now would lead to a political nightmare down the road, when lawmakers are required to redo political districts following the next federal census.

The two were among four lawmakers who laid out redistricting proposals at a hearing before the Legislature’s Executive Board.

Both said they want to create a process that is fair and nonpartisan and that provides for citizen involvement.

They contrasted their ideas with Nebraska’s past redistricting processes, which have differed every decade and resulted in a court battle in 1992.

Donna Roller of Lincoln endorsed their goals, especially the value of citizen participation.

“There’s nothing more important than my vote, and I want our elections to be fair and everyone to be equally represented,” she said.

>> Legislative Bill 253, introduced by McCollister, would create an independent citizen commission to draw up new district boundary proposals for U.S. Congress, the Legislature, the Public Service Commission, the Nebraska Supreme Court, the State Board of Education and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

The commission would have seven members, including three from each of the two main political parties. The chair could not be from either of those parties. 

The bill sets out principles for redrawing boundaries, such as ensuring equal populations in the districts, following county lines and ensuring that districts are compact and contiguous.

It requires the commission to ignore the political party of voters and previous election results and to avoid improperly diluting the voting rights of any group based on race or language. The commission would work with the Legislature's research director in drawing the new boundaries.

Public hearings would be held on the resulting proposals, after which they would go to the Legislature for approval. If lawmakers rejected the initial set of proposals, the commission would be required to draw up a second set of proposals. If those also were rejected, the Executive Board would draw up a third set.  

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>> LB 466, introduced by Howard, would be similar to the process used in Iowa since 1981. It would put the job of drawing new district boundaries in the hands of the director of legislative research.

The bill would require that new district maps be drawn using state-issued computer software and politically neutral criteria. Political affiliation of voters, past voting data and demographic information from sources other than the U.S. Census could not be considered. 

A special legislative Redistricting Committee would hold hearings in each of the three congressional districts on the initial boundary proposals. 

Lawmakers would have to vote on those proposals without substantive amendments. If lawmakers nix the first set of proposals, the director of research would draw up a second, and if needed, a third set.

The other two bills addressed more limited pieces of the process. 

>> LB 261, introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, would require that any redistricting proposal be done using state-issued computer software. She said the bill would codify best practices.

>> LB 467, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, would allow only population numbers, not other demographic factors such as race, language or household makeup to be considered in redistricting. The bill mirrors language used in the Legislature's 2011 redistricting resolution, he said. It also would bar consideration of political affiliation and previous election results. 

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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