Oregon Legislature to tackle redistricting
Jonathan J. Cooper
Portland, OR (AP) — On top of a big budget deficit, next year’s closely divided Oregon Legislature will have to tackle a high-stakes task that will influence the next 10 years of state government.
Following the release of figures from the 2010 U.S. Census, Oregon lawmakers will try to redraw the maps for legislative and congressional districts — a task that affects lawmakers’ own political futures and the partisan balance of state and national government.
The result determines which legislators get easy re-election battles and which political party is more likely to control the statehouse. Few legislative tasks are more important to lawmakers and their political parties. And few have such long-lasting effects on public policy.
Politicians in Oregon haven’t been able to reach agreement on drawing
legislative maps since 1981, so the secretary of state has had to do it instead.
The stakes are particularly high for Republicans, who have gained seats in the state House and Senate but could lose their opportunity to participate if the process stalls and again falls to the secretary of state, who is a Democrat.
In 2001, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed maps created by a GOP-controlled Legislature. Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury picked up the ball and drew boundaries that, according to some Republicans, laid the groundwork for Democratic gains in the ensuing decade.
After eight years out of office, Kitzhaber is returning to the governor’s office next year, and that has Republicans worried he’ll again kick the process to a Democratic secretary of state.
“The same governor using the same strategy will aim at the same outcome for redistricting,” said Senate Republican leader Ted Ferrioli.
He called Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat, a “good soldier” who would ensure her party benefits from friendly legislative maps.
Deputy Secretary of State Barry Pack said Brown’s office would draw a plan that’s “good for all of Oregon.”
State officials expect to get Census data in March. Oregon law requires them to ensure as much as possible that districts:
- Are contiguous;
- Are equal in population;
- Respect existing geographic or political boundaries;
- Don’t divide communities of common interest; and
- Are connected by transportation links.
Lawmakers have until July 1 to complete the task before it becomes Brown’s responsibility to draw legislative districts. Disputes over congressional districts are generally litigated in federal court.
These backup plans mean that redistricting, unlike the state budget or any other issue, cannot fall victim to legislative gridlock.
House Speaker Dave Hunt, a Democrat, acknowledged that the process gives Democrats an incentive to stall until July 1 but said there’s no plan to have the process fall to Brown.
“We’ve been planning for probably a year to have the Legislature do it and I think there’s a very strong desire and commitment to have the Legislature do the process,” Hunt said.
Democrats are likely to have a narrow 16-14 majority in next year’s Senate. The House will be tied at 30-30, and party leaders will have to figure out how they can share power.
Former Democratic Secretary of State Phil Keisling, now at Portland State University running the Center for Public Service at the Hatfield School of Government, said the Legislature would be well advised to try to find “a neutral process” to handle redistricting.
“I think it’s just a big distraction” that erodes public confidence, he said.
Earlier this year, conservative activists fell short in a petition drive that would have asked voters to hand redistricting chores to a panel of retired judges. Other states have taken the task away from lawmakers in hopes of creating more neutral maps that don’t benefit one party over the other.
Associated Press Writer Tim Fought contributed.
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