Utah lawmakers, anti-gerrymandering group reach deal on Prop 4

State lawmakers have reached a tentative accord with the anti-gerrymandering group trying to protect Proposition 4, the voter-approved initiative to create an independent redistricting commission.

The two parties had hit an impasse because lawmakers wanted to delete language barring the commission from designing voting maps to protect incumbents or promote political interests. That deadlock seems to have broken, with a Better Boundaries representative confirming Wednesday that her group had found agreement with state lawmakers “in principle.”

“The concerns we had about the commission being bound by the standards have been addressed,” Rebecca Chavez-Houck, executive director of Better Boundaries, wrote in a text message.

She declined to comment further until she’s seen the bill language.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, House lawmakers gave little sense of what transpired to end the standoff with Better Boundaries.

“There was a lot of discussion about words and what those words were going to be,” said Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem. “And in the end, we found some words that we could all agree upon.”

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Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, hinted Tuesday that legislators and Better Boundaries — a bipartisan group that led the signature-gathering effort for Prop 4 in 2018 — might be closing in on a deal. A planned Thursday protest at the Capitol was also canceled.

The sticking point in negotiations had been about setting legal anti-gerrymandering standards for the commission. Legislators resisted placing these requirements in state law and said the commission — tasked with crafting proposed maps following the decennial Census — could come up its own internal rules.

Sen. Curtis Bramble, the Provo Republican who’s sponsoring the bill on Prop 4, has said the ban was problematic because the negotiators were unable to craft a good definition for gerrymandering, raising concerns that the state would have difficulty proving compliance if someone sued over their voting maps.

But Better Boundaries maintained that the legal safeguards against gerrymandering lie at the heart of Prop 4 and that eliminating them would drain the law of its power.

Lawmakers are also planning on deleting a Prop 4 requirement that the Legislature vote to adopt or reject without amendment the independent commission’s district recommendations, a change Better Boundaries reluctantly accepted during the negotiation process.

However, the proposed changes will keep the “integrity of the independent commission," Peterson said, adding that the seven-member panel will have its own staff but receive funding from the Legislature.

Those assurances failed to satisfy Alliance for a Better Utah, which released a statement blasting the reported compromise and accusing lawmakers of preparing to gut Prop 4.

“Over the past few years, the Legislature has given us no reason to trust their intentions and we shouldn’t begin to trust them now,” Chase Thomas, executive director of the progressive-leaning group, said in a prepared statement. “The Legislature has repeatedly shown it is not interested in upholding the will of Utah voters. Here, once again, the explanations ring hollow and voters should recognize this for the power grab it is."

News of the agreement was first reported by UtahPolicy.com.

Members of Senate leadership were similarly reluctant to describe the specifics of the compromise on Thursday, but confirmed that a deal was taking shape.

“We prefer not to go into any details at this point,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. “We’re just cautiously optimistic that we have a solution.”

And Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said that there was not yet a bipartisan consensus on the compromise, as lawmakers are still waiting to see the final language of the bill, which is expected to be released later this week.

“I think we need some more time right now to be able to take it to the caucuses and make sure we have an agreement there that we can move forward,” Davis said.

Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this article.