Anti-gerrymandering compromise garners unanimous support from Utah Senate

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Maps are seen at a Redistricting Committee meeting in 2011.

A proposed rewrite of the state’s anti-gerrymandering law glided through the Utah Senate on Tuesday, leaving in the rearview the tense negotiations that forged it.

“Well, senators, this is the bill that was so controversial, you’ll you see the galleries are full,” Sen. Curt Bramble quipped looking at the largely empty public seating area. “And the citizens have come storming the castle.”

The proposal is the product of about 15 months of talks between state lawmakers and the anti-gerrymandering group Better Boundaries. At issue was how to preserve the core of Proposition 4, the 2018 voter initiative on independent redistricting, while also satisfying lawmakers who harbored reservations about the new law’s legality and practicality.

Just a couple weeks ago, it appeared as if a compromise between the two sides was out of reach — the talks had broken down, Better Boundaries accused lawmakers of trying to repeal Prop 4 and anti-gerrymandering advocates were preparing a protest at the state Capitol.

Then, after a last-minute breakthrough, Bramble unveiled a bill that brought these factions together, and it has been flying through the Legislature ever since.

“It sets up that independent process,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said. “I hope they come up with some really good maps that we can consider and move forward with.”

With no pushback to SB200, the Senate dispensed Tuesday with its normal practice of polling the chamber twice on each proposal and took a single vote, which was in unanimous support of the bill. The proposal now moves to the Utah House for consideration, where Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, will be presenting it.

Despite the lack of controversy on the Senate floor, some advocates are concerned that the revisions to Prop 4 do away with key transparency and accountability provisions baked into the citizen initiative. For instance, SB200 eliminates a requirement that the Utah Legislature take a yes-or-no vote on the independent commission’s maps and publicly explain any decision to reject the proposed district designs.

“There are no standards to which the Legislature is now held when they create maps," said Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive-leaning government accountability group.

Matheson’s organization was not part of the recent negotiations with state lawmakers, but she said her group appreciates the “tireless efforts” of Better Boundaries to protect Prop 4.

“They did what they needed to do to avoid a full-out repeal," she said.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, executive director for Better Boundaries, said she was pleased to see SB200 move forward and that her group was willing to accept the proposed changes to Prop 4 as part of the compromise with state lawmakers.

“Legislators had grave concerns about the constitutionality of the standards in Prop 4 as applied to the Legislature," she wrote in an email. "Our legal analyses differed here, but this is an area where we opted to concede in order to keep the commission whole.”

Under Bramble’s bill, the governor and Legislature will appoint a seven-member commission to design recommended congressional and legislative districts following the decennial Census. The voter initiative prohibited this redistricting group from drawing boundaries to protect incumbents or promote a political party, language that would be stricken out if the current proposal passes.

Instead, the legislation contains a slightly looser provision requiring the commission to craft its own internal rules “prohibiting the purposeful or undue favoring or disfavoring” of parties or candidates.

With the bill, the state would provide $1 million to fund the commission and try to coordinate a statewide hearing tour so the independent group and the legislative redistricting committee don’t duplicate efforts, Vickers said.