Anti-gerrymandering compromise headed to Utah governor

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

Bitter fights erupted when lawmakers rewrote other voter-passed initiatives. But little rancor remained as the House gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a compromise that rewrote Proposition 4 that creates an independent commission to propose new political districts.

The House voted 67-4 to pass SB200, sending it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

Under the compromise, the governor and Legislature will appoint a seven-member commission to design recommended congressional and legislative districts following the once-a-decade census.

But 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.

Prop 4 also had banned the commission from drawing boundaries to protect incumbents or promote a political party. The bill now instead contains a 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,

“I wanted in every way possible to preserve what they [the voters] wanted in this proposition,” said Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, the House sponsor of the bill.

“This gives what the people wanted: an independent, advisory redistricting commission leaving ultimate authority to us as legislators,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.

However, not everyone was happy. The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah criticized the bill.

“This bill removes accountability and transparency from the redistricting process for the Legislature. This will make it easier for lawmakers to avoid facing the public about the new maps they create for all of Utah,” it said in a news release.

“This bill preserves the independent redistricting commission from Prop 4 and requires standards for its maps, which is good news,” the group said. “But it also makes it harder for the people of Utah to hold the Legislature accountable during and after the mapmaking process.”

Better Boundaries, the group that pushed Prop 4, fully supported the compromise.

“Not everybody got everything they wanted,” co-chairman Jeff Wright said at a recent news conference, “but that’s the democratic process.”

The bill comes after more than a year of private negotiations between lawmakers and Better Boundaries. Those talks 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.

However, the groups resumed talks and eventually produced the compromise.

Proposition 4 was one of three initiatives 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.