Redistricting causes commotion at Capitol

The Colorado Statesman

House Republicans on Friday introduced a bill on judicial instructions for congressional redistricting that is causing a stir at the capitol and raising concerns that it could impact the work of the bipartisan committee on redistricting.

House Bill 11-1276 is sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. It would overturn a law that went through the General Assembly in the final weeks of the 2010 session.

The bill is co-sponsored by nine other House Republicans, none of whom are on the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting.

HB 1276 would reinstate a 2004 law that provided judges with prioritized criteria for drawing their own congressional maps. HB 1276 also would tell judges that they could not use “non-neutral factors,” such as political party registration, political party election performance, or other factors “that invite the court to speculate about the outcome of an election.”

HB 1276 would reverse a 2010 bill, House Bill 1408, which caused a heated partisan battle in the final weeks of the 2010 session. It was sponsored by then-House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann and Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs and was supported solely by Democrats, who held the majorities in both the House and Senate in 2010.

The 2010 law removed the language regarding non-neutral factors, and said judges did not have to consider the non-federal criteria in any particular order, or at all.

The factors listed in statute, and according to priority, are:
• mathematical population equality between districts and that districts may not overlap,
• compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights act.
The first two factors are federal requirements; the rest are statutory and under HB 1408 were optional and in no particular order:
• preservation of political subdivisions such as counties, cities and towns;
• preservation of “communities of interest,” including ethnic, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic and demographic factors;
• that districts be as compact as possible, and
• minimal disruption of prior district lines.

HB 1276 also seeks to restore language in the 2004 law that addressed keeping the Western Slope and Eastern Plains whole, contained within the criteria regarding communities of interest.

The bill was introduced on Friday, March 4, but Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told The Colorado Statesman it was not a bill that required “late bill” status, despite its introduction almost halfway into the session. He explained that HB 1276 was among the five original bill titles submitted by Brown at the beginning of the session and required only “delayed bill” status for its introduction.

House Republican members of the redistricting committee were not informed about the bill, according to McNulty and also according to one of those members.

McNulty said Monday that he did not discuss HB 1276 with any of the members of the redistricting committee. “It’s because of the task that they have at hand,” he said. “It’s a very serious task, but doable, and that’s what their focus ought to be, and not what happens on some other committee.”

McNulty also said he believes the committee will come up with a map for the General Assembly to approve, and any concerns that the process will wind up in the courts is if “the Democrats allow it. I have faith in the redistricting committee,” but he said he also understands that it’s “important for people in rural Colorado to have the discussion about the importance of their communities.” McNulty said that was the focus of the debate last year when 1408 eliminated the criteria that mentioned the Western Slope and Eastern Plains. That’s a discussion that Brown and Roberts want to bring back, McNulty said, “and they have every right to have that conversation.”

Balmer says bill won’t derail work of joint committee

Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, the redistricting committee’s co-chair, didn’t know the bill had been introduced until he was called by The Statesman last Friday. Balmer said McNulty had kept him “isolated from those discussions,” presumably so that he would remain neutral and objective in his work on the committee.

“Nothing is going to derail the work of the joint committee,” Balmer vowed. “All 10 of us are working very hard to draw a fair map, and we’re determined to listen to the public. We’re not going to allow anything to distract us, not this, not anything else.”

HB 1276 has been assigned to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which includes redistricting committee member Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Coram told The Statesman Monday he had just begun reading the bill and had not yet formed an opinion on how he would vote. However, “my ultimate hope is that it’s a bill that is never needed again.” If the committee does its job, he said, “we will bring a 10-0 decision to the floor and hopefully the five representatives and five senators are good enough salesmen that they will sell it and the governor will sign it. It will save the taxpayers a lot of money and a lot of frustration. And that’s the ultimate goal.”

Democrats, however, claim the bill’s introduction is intended to derail the work of the joint committee. Friday, House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, issued a statement saying HB 1276 “undermines the people of Colorado taking the time and trouble to testify before the committee. Let the committee complete their work before binding them to nontraditional redistricting criteria.” Pace also called the bill “a slap in the face to rural Coloradans,” because it implies that larger cities are more important in the process than smaller ones. “Republicans are opting to make up their minds of our smaller communities even before Grand Junction, Alamosa and Pueblo have had an opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said Monday he was concerned about the bill “potentially affecting the perceptions of legislators about the successful outcome of the process,” but added that he was optimistic that the committee will come up with its map.

“Timing will be everything. We have six more hearings in the next 12 days,” including the hearings on the Western Slope and in Southern Colorado. “I’m hopeful the work on our public input, which is the cornerstone of our process,” will be completed before HB 1276 hits the House floor, he said.

HB 1276 is scheduled to be heard in the State Affairs Committee on March 16. All of the public hearings on redistricting will be concluded by then, save one: the March 19 hearing in Grand Junction.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, the other co-chair of the redistricting committee, said Monday he was disappointed and surprised by HB 1276. “We have a [select committee], appointed by the Speaker and the President,” that has operated with “a great deal of civility and bipartisanship” and which expects to come up with a map, he told The Statesman Monday.

But HB 1276 “flies in the face of bipartisanship,” Heath said. “We were told what to look at,” and HB 1276 changes all of that by changing the rules in the middle of the process.

As to its passage through the House, Heath said he would pay no any attention to it and “proceed as if it didn’t happen.”

Should the bill pass the House, it would logically be sent to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee — which is chaired by Heath.

McNulty said he didn’t take into consideration that HB 1276 could wind up in Heath’s committee, but said that was the logical place for it to be anyway. “Rollie has always been a very standup legislator. He’s never been overtly partisan for the sake of being partisan,” he said, and that’s why Heath was a good choice for the redistricting committee.

“We will redistrict without going to court,” predicted committee member Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray. HB 1276 won’t matter for this go-round, he said, but he also understood the concerns of those on the Western Slope who are pushing for the bill. “‘Trust but verify’ is their Reaganesque motto,” he said.

As to the message being sent to the committee by the bill’s introduction, Brophy disagreed that it was intended to undermine the committee’s work. “It tells me that they care deeply about keeping the Western Slope whole,” he told The Statesman Monday. “They care about the communities of interest, and want to make sure judges understand that.”

But the real question, Brophy said, should be about revisiting HB 1408, which was introduced on April 15, less than four weeks before the end of the 2010 session. After seeing poll numbers last year that showed the General Assembly might change hands, Democrats “tried to change the rules late in the game last year to affect redistricting this year,” he said.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said he hadn’t seen HB 1276 or discussed the bill with McNulty. “I’m not second-guessing his intentions,” Shaffer said. Shaffer did admit that sending the bill to Heath’s committee, once it reached the Senate, is a possibility. As to whether the bill could go to another committee to keep the redistricting committee’s co-chair out of a partisan battle over redistricting, Shaffer said it was an interesting idea.

Roberts noted that the bill originated in conversations at Club 20, of which she is a member. Those conversations covered the priorities for the Western Slope on redistricting, she told The Statesman Monday. “It’s not meant to undermine the [select] committee, but to restore the factors if the committee doesn’t come up with a map.” Roberts said everyone has to anticipate the possibility that the committee won’t come up with a map. But she also said she did not see HB 1276 as being at odds with the work of the redistricting committee.

She also noted that if the criteria were such a big issue for Democrats that they should have dealt with it when they first took the majority in 2005 or at any other time prior to last year.

Morse said that what worried him most about HB 1276 is the message it sends from Republicans — that they believe the map will head to the courts. The Legislature “ought to do its duty and not leave it to the courts,” although it’s probably headed there anyway, he said.

As to whether to insulate Heath from having to deal with the issue, Morse said the Republicans should have thought of that before they introduced the bill and that Heath would be absolutely appropriate to deal with it. HB 1276 is “wholly inappropriate; it was inappropriate in 2004 and it’s inappropriate now,” Morse said. “We fixed it in 2010. I don’t think [HB 1276] will get any traction in the Senate.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com