LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday vetoed a bill that would create an independent commission of citizens to redraw the state’s political maps.
In a letter to lawmakers, Ricketts called Legislative Bill 580 a major policy shift that’s unconstitutional because elected lawmakers, not members of a commission, are required to redistrict every 10 years. He argued that the commission could amount to a “hyper-partisan” body composed of former political party activists and elected officials.
“At stake are the voting rights of all Nebraskans,” Ricketts said.
State Sen. John Murante of Gretna, who introduced the bill, responded by saying that he had not yet decided whether to pursue an override.
“I want to fully understand the governor’s veto message and then discuss his constitutional concerns with some legal experts before I make my decision,” he said.
Last week, the bill overcame a final-round stalling tactic in the Nebraska Legislature and passed on a 29-15 vote.
The bill represents a compromise between Murante and Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, two senators politically active in their respective parties. Murante is a Republican; Mello is a Democrat.
Under their proposal, redistricting would start with the Legislative Research Office, which would draw base redistricting maps and submit those to the Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Commission.
The state’s three legislative caucuses, which are based on geographic areas, would pick the commission’s nine members. No more than five could be from a single political party. They could not be lobbyists or elected officials or anyone related to or employed by an individual who is an elected constitutional officer.
The commission would redraw the state’s maps for six bodies: U.S. House, the Legislature, Public Service Commission, University of Nebraska Board of Regents, State Board of Education and Nebraska Supreme Court.
After at least four public hearings to gauge public opinion, the maps would be introduced as separate legislative bills and placed on first-round consideration. While the commission would draw the maps, the Legislature would still have final approval.
The commission would be a change from the special committee of lawmakers who handled redistricting in 2011, when senators fought over redrawing the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Lawmakers who served during that time have described the process as divisive and partisan.
Ricketts said that although redistricting can be tough, handing the authority to a board appointed by legislative caucuses is “outside the spirit and tradition” of the nonpartisan Legislature.” He also said the bill represented an improper delegation of legislative power.
“LB 580 unnecessarily grows government by creating an unelected and unaccountable board and opens up our redistricting process to political cronyism,” he said. “I am vetoing this bill today to keep the voices of Nebraskans in the redistricting process.”
The governor announced the veto just hours after both Mello and Murante stood next to him at a bill signing ceremony for the Transportation Innovation Act, which creates a transportation infrastructure bank.
Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, said an independent redistricting commission was upheld in Arizona by the U.S. Supreme Court, making congressional maps drawn by a commission in Nebraska constitutional. He also said that the Nebraska Constitution doesn’t bar redistricting authority from being delegated.
“As long as the legislature retains the ultimate authority in deciding which maps will make the cut, they are meeting their constitutional burden,” he said.
Murante said that with redistricting not happening until 2021, his top priority is to establish a process that serves the people best and conforms to the constitution.
“I want to get it right,” he said, “and I’m not willing to settle for anything less than that.”
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