Partisanship, Timing Concerns Aired at Redistricting Hearing

Sept. 15, 2021, 5 p.m. ·

Sen. Mark Kolterman
Sen. Mark Kolterman testifies Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

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Concerns about partisanship and the compressed timetable for redistricting were among those aired at a public hearing in Lincoln Wednesday.

The guidelines adopted by the officially nonpartisan Legislature on redistricting say district boundaries should not be drawn to favor any political party or consider voter registration. But balancing those sentiments with practical political considerations is proving to be a challenge for the Redistricting Committee.

Several examples of that came up in Wednesday’s public hearing at the Capitol. Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus was arguing in favor of keeping his city, and the surrounding Platte County, in the Lincoln-centered First Congressional District, currently represented by Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. Keeping Platte in the First is what’s proposed by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the Republican chair of the committee. Moser opposes a proposal by Sen. Justin Wayne, the Democratic vice chair of the committee, to move Platte County into the heavily rural Third District, currently represented by Republican Congressman Adrian Smith.

Moser argued Columbus is more like the First District than the Third because of its concentration of manufacturing and its commercial and banking connections. Then he ventured into another area.

“Just to interject a little political note into this, Platte County is 62 percent Republican, and District One, which we are now, is 46 percent Republican. District Three is 61 percent Republican. So moving Platte County into District…” Moser said.

Linehan cut in. “I don’t think we’re supposed to go there…We’re not supposed to base the maps on political registration,” Linehan said.

“I’m not. But I say…it’s a motivation for why we got moved to the Third District,” Moser responded.

In other words, Moser was arguing that Wayne’s plan of shifting Platte County to the Third District would favor Democrats by making the First District more competitive.

Accusations of partisanship also surfaced when Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward was objecting to Linehan’s proposal to move his district, which has been growing slowly, to fast-growing Sarpy County and Saunders County. Kolterman, a registered Republican, objected to the fact that the state Republican Party sent out an email in favor of Linehan’s plan,

“I told you earlier I’ve been a Republican my entire life. This year it’ll be 50 years. But when I took the oath of office, I didn’t take it to serve the Republican Party. I was elected by the residents of District 24 to serve the state of Nebraska,” Kolterman said.

Wayne’s plan, supported by Democrats, would preserve most of Kolterman’s District. But it would transfer southwest Nebraska’s District 44, represented by Republican Sen. Dan Hughes, to Sarpy and Douglas Counties.

Kolterman was supported by a parade of District residents who talked about the need to preserve the district, which also includes York and Polk Counties. And Kolterman cast his plea in terms of Nebraska’s nonpartisan tradition.

“We are the only nonpartisan legislative body in the United States. While redistricting will have some partisan attitudes – I get that – but it’s important that we remain true to what makes Nebraska unique. Ensure that these maps are being drawn fairly, without any personal animus, without any undue partisan gain to either political party,” he said.

Kolterman has introduced a bill to add a senator, which he said would take away the need to move his or Hughes’s district. Attorney General Doug Peterson issued an opinion Wednesday saying that was outside the purposes for which Gov. Pete Ricketts called the special redistricting session. The opinion said Kolterman could ask Ricketts to expand the call; Kolterman said he hasn’t yet decided what he’ll do.

Several people at the hearing expressed frustration at the short time available to study the proposed maps and suggest changes. The Redistricting Committee members unveiled their proposals just last week. Joey Litwinowicz was among those objecting at Wednesday’s hearing.

“I just want to say how very upset I am at the time that we were given to look at this. You can’t get educated. There’s no way,” Litwinowicz said.

Committee member Sen. John Lowe of Kearney agreed.

“We are all mad about this timing. We did not get the numbers until late. We would normally have a 90-day session to do this. And so, we are trying to get this out as soon as we possibly can because we need to because our counties and our cities and our schools can’t function without us doing this,” Lowe said.

Counties have to draw precinct lines and voters have to be able to determine what districts they’re in after the Legislature finishes its work. The redistricting session is currently scheduled to end Sept. 30. But Danielle Conrad of ACLU Nebraska suggested at Wednesday’s hearing that senators could stretch that out if they needed to.

And in other legislative news, the Accountability and Disclosure Commission has dismissed a complaint filed by Jack Gould of Common Cause against former Sen. Jim Smith for lobbying without having registered. Smith is now executive director of Blue Print Nebraska, a business-oriented group whose projects include proposing a new tax system. Gould complained Smith met with Linehan and other officials without having registered as a lobbyist; Smith responded that there was no specific legislative proposal at the time and he was not required to register. Blue Print Nebraska’s ideas are among many expected to be discussed in the regular legislative session that starts in January.