Let legislators steam - It's our kitchen, too
On its face, the Legislature's once-a-decade task of drawing new legislative and congressional boundaries in Utah has come down to three essentials: math, geography and politics.
This year, though, a group called the Fair Boundaries Coalition is pushing a citizens' initiative that, if it makes it on the ballot and voters pass it next year, would give that job first to an independent commission that would send its recommendations to lawmakers.
It's one of many initiatives proposed this year, from one to create an independent ethics panel that would hear complaints and advise lawmakers, to the latest, an anti-bribery and anti-corruption measure.
Now, initiatives are nothing new in Utah or anywhere else. But these troubled times -- the economy, unemployment, U.S. wars, the hugely partisan battle over health care reform -- have profoundly unsettled all Americans who want a greater say in how our republic operates.
So they've gone to citizen initiatives, and that has legislative leaders steaming. In the matter of redistricting, the prerogative of drawing the state's political districts has always been theirs, and they see no good reason an independent commission should be involved.
This time around, the stakes will be even higher because Utah is expected to gain a fourth seat in the U.S. House.
To Glenn Wright, Fair Boundaries' field director, it's time to let the voters choose whether to revamp the redistricting process, starting with the commission, which would make its recommendations to the Legislature. The final decision would remain with lawmakers.
What's at stake, Wright says, is the pernicious gerrymandering that he, and many others, believe has plagued Utah since statehood.
Just look at tiny Sanpete County, he says. In 2001, the redistricting plan broke it into three districts, and not one has a representative living in the county, despite its conservative Republican credentials. And that's just one example. There are plenty more, from Summit and Salt Lake counties to Carbon and Emery.
"There's all kinds of unintended consequences when the legislative leadership tries to disadvantage their opponents," Wright says. "Sometimes they wind up disadvantaging the allies."
House Speaker Dave Clark could not disagree more. He cites the cost, estimated about $1 million, and the murky nature of the initiative's framework.
"It's a boxcar," Clark said, referring to bills that are created but lack details. "There's nothing inside."
He says he welcomes ideas, but given the stakes this time around, he'd prefer to see the Legislature grapple with the state's changing demographics, particularly in the heavily populated Wasatch Front.
Clark said he also has been working for years with the National Conference of State Legislature's redistricting and elections committee to find effective and litigation-proof models. And, he says, there is potential for lawsuits if the initiative passes and an independent commission gets involved.
"Historically, look around the country. Lawsuits are twice as likely with commissions. Idaho and Arizona had suits and spent $9 million to $10 million" fighting them, he said. "Simple and straightforward is always the best, as Utah has done historically and never had a lawsuit."
Getting any of the initiatives on the 2010 ballot will be tough. Backers would have to collect the signatures of 95,000 registered voters by April 15. Wright has hundreds of collectors all over Utah and estimates they have about 15 percent of the number they need.
He does take heart that of those signatures, 50 percent are unaffiliated voters, 30 percent are Republican and 20 percent Democrats. That's about the political makeup of Utah voters, so Wright sees a broad swath that he believes will put the initiative on the ballot.
I can't predict one way or the other. But I embrace the idea of motivated Utahns letting our elected representatives know we're not only watching, but taking a turn on the sausage grinder. It's our kitchen, too.