Senators Lock Horns over Legislative Redistricting

Sept. 20, 2021, midnight ·

Senators huddle on floor of Nebraska Legislature
Senators huddle on floor of the Nebraska Legislature Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

The Nebraska Legislature turned its attention to redrawing legislative districts Monday, with senators struggling to come up with a solution.

After deadlocking on redrawing congressional districts Friday, senators took up redrawing legislative districts Monday. The day started with the Redistricting Committee voting 5-4 along party lines to forward the legislative map sponsored by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan. She’s the chair of the committee and a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. When the full Legislature took up her proposal, Linehan defended it.

“It’s not personal. It’s not about any one member who somebody’s mad at. It’s just a math problem. It’s what it is, folks. It’s a math problem,” Linehan said.

Linehan said districts have to be realigned because of population shifts over the last 10 years. Those shifts have seen population loss in rural and western districts, and population growth in urban and eastern districts.

Linehan’s proposal, LB3, would move the district currently represented by Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, a Republican, to fast-growing Sarpy and Saunders Counties. Kolterman objected that his district is actually growing, if not as fast as the state as a whole.

“I can’t support LB3 because it rips my district apart. I just can’t support that,” Kolterman said.

Kolterman proposed a map that would preserve his district by rejuggling the lines, along with those of Sens. Myron Dorn of Adams and Tom Brandt of Plymouth. That proposal would fit with a proposal that moves the southwest Nebraska district of Sen. Dan Hughes, also a Republican, to Sarpy and Douglas Counties, although Kolterman said he opposed that idea.

Linehan objected that it made no sense to adjust only part of the statewide map.

Senators voted 26-21 late Monday afternoon in favor of Kolterman’s proposal. But Hughes immediately moved to reconsider that vote. And Sen. Justin Wayne, the sponsor of the bill to move Hughes’ district, conceded he didn’t have enough votes to prevail.

The wrangling came during a day of debate that highlighted tensions over the Legislature’s nonpartisan status.

Senators are elected on a nonpartisan basis, with their names appearing on the ballot without a party affiliation listed, even if they belong to a political party. Sen. John McCollister, a registered Republican who voted against Linehan’s congressional proposal Friday, referred to that Monday.

“As I came into the Norris Chamber last Friday, one of my Republican colleagues said ‘McCollister, vote like a Republican today.’ As you know, I didn’t vote with the Republican majority. But upon reflection, I did vote like a Republican – a George Norris Republican. Norris, whose name this chamber bears, had contempt for party politics,” McCollister said.

Norris was a Republican U.S. congressman and senator from 1903 to 1943 who was instrumental in persuading Nebraskans to approve a one-house, nonpartisan Legislature.

Sen. Steve Erdman, a Republican, said that structure has not served the state well.

“To say that the unicameral system is the best system in the nation, I would totally disagree with that. It’s time to look at that great experiment that George Norris put in place. But we don’t want to talk about that because it’s ‘nonpartisan.’ There’s no such thing as nonpartisan. Never has been. Never will be,” Erdman said.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, a Democrat, said she had talked to former senators involved in previous redistricting efforts.

“And those folks warned me that this will be the most partisan time that you will ever come across, that it will be ugly, and clearly they were sugarcoating it,” DeBoer said.

Faced with the prospect of another day spent debating without advancing a bill, Sen. Steve Lathrop lamented the apparent stalemate.

“Today we are starting once again an eight-hour debate. Everyone in this room knows what the vote count looks like. Nothing is going to happen. And to be clear, when you hear the chair talk about negotiations, there are none,” Lathrop said.

Other senators insisted negotiations were still taking place. But as afternoon headed toward evening, the shape of a potential compromise remained to be seen.

Kolterman proposed legislative map
Map proposed and circled by Sen. Mark Kolterman (Source: Sen. Kolterman)