Bill changing redistricting initiative sails through Utah Senate committee

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Jeff Wright, co-chairman of Better Boundaries, chats with Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, after a news conference about the voter-approved initiative to create an independent redistricting commission, at the Capitol, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.

A panel of Utah lawmakers on Monday made quick work of a series of changes to Proposition 4, the 2018 voter-approved initiative creating an independent redistricting commission aimed at curbing gerrymandering in the state.

Members of the Senate Business and Labor committee voted unanimously for SB200, which loosens the initiative’s legal restrictions on the redistricting process, directing the commission to adopt its own rules for fair, nonpartisan voting maps and freeing lawmakers to disregard those maps if they choose.

“Whether it’s Proposition 4 or Senate Bill 200, either would be considered advisory because of the [state] constitution,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the bill’s sponsor.

[Read more: Utah lawmakers, Better Boundaries explain how they’ve compromised on the anti-gerrymandering law]

The commission will be composed of seven members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders and will formulate redistricting recommendations to share with the Utah Legislature following the decennial Census.

Proposition 4 was one of three initiative to win majority approval during the 2018 election. The other two initiatives — dealing with medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion — were immediately repealed by lawmakers and replaced with more restrictive legislation.

Bramble said SB200 was the result of more than a year of good-faith negotiations between Republican and Democratic lawmakers and Better Boundaries, which sponsored Proposition 4 during the 2018 election cycle.

Those negotiations had broken down last month, with Better Boundaries claiming the Legislature was poised to adopt a full repeal of Proposition 4.

Legislative leaders disputed that characterization, while acknowledging that the negotiations had reached an impasse and that all options, up to and including an outright repeal, were under consideration.

On Thursday, lawmakers and representatives of Better Boundaries held a joint press conference announcing the compromise structure of SB200. And during Monday’s committee hearing, Better Boundaries co-chairman Jeff Wright reiterated that his group “fully supports” the bill.

“Not everybody got everything they wanted,” Wright said, “but that’s the democratic process.”

And Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former lawmaker and executive director of Better Boundaries, said the compromise legislation maintains the core principals of Proposition 4 by requiring an independent group to recommend voting maps based on nonpartisan redistricting criteria.

“At the end of the day,” Chavez-Houck said, “it is a win for Utahns.”

The Senate committee approved SB200 with very little discussion and effectively no debate. And no members of the public took the opportunity to testify for or against the bill during the 7 a.m. hearing, which Bramble said indicated the consensus nature of the legislation.

“The proof of that is the overwhelming support we see by having no one here speaking in opposition,” Bramble said.

SB200 will now move to the full Senate for consideration.