Utah’s redistricting commission may be set up to fail, Robert Gehrke says

A shoestring budget and a Herculean task on a tight timeframe has Utah’s first-ever commission scrambling to do its work on the cheap

(Screenshot via YouTube) Former Sen. Lyle Hillyard and Brigham Young University professor Rex Facer at Tuesday's meeting of Utah’s independent redistricting commission.

It took years of effort, millions of dollars and ultimately the voice of voters passing Proposition 4 in 2018 to create Utah’s first-ever independent redistricting commission.

Now, even its early stages, there’s concern that tight financial constraints might make it difficult, if not impossible, for the commission to fulfill its mandate, making it even easier for the Legislature to ignore the recommendations of the commission that Republican lawmakers opposed, but the public demanded be created.

To understand what the fledgling commission is up against, we need to understand the scope of the job.

The seven-member commission is assigned to recommend to the Legislature not one map, but three maps each with new boundaries for four congressional seats, 29 state Senate seats, 75 state House seats and 15 state school board seats.

Each district has to be meticulously crafted to have a nearly identical number of people and meet a variety of defined criteria — they are supposed to be contiguous, follow existing geographic boundaries, maintain communities of interest, and so forth.

If you tried your hand at drawing maps 10 years ago, you know the first few are easy, but they get harder and harder as you fine-tune districts a block at a time, each adjustment cascading into changes in surrounding districts.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s painstaking work, even in the best of times — and these aren’t exactly the best of times.

Because of COVID, the Census Bureau delayed the release of population data until mid-August and it will take a couple weeks to get it processed into a usable format for mapping.

That leaves essentially eight weeks for the commission to draw all of those maps — 369 districts in all — hold the seven public hearings required by law to be held no later than Oct. 17, and submit the final recommendations to the Legislature two weeks later.

It is a Herculean lift on a tight timeframe that could be further complicated by a COVID resurgence.

It would be really nice to have hot-shot mapping professionals on staff, but the commission can’t afford them. Instead, it will be a squad of interns assigned the heavy lift of drawing the maps along with the commissioners.

For the first few of its public meetings, the commission is resigned to not having actual maps to show the public.

“We just can’t do it,” Lyle Hillyard, a member of the commission, said. There simply isn’t time.

Instead, at those initial meetings, the public will be given the old maps along with the population shifts in each district and be asked how locals would like to see the lines shift, commission chairman Rex Facer II said.

When the maps are done, the commission won’t have the $150,000 it would cost to pay for an expert analysis to determine if the maps meet the legal criteria or have a partisan bias.

At the last meeting, commission members debated whether to hold on to $50,000, hoping maybe they could hire those experts, or to spend it on public outreach.

They opted to buy ads on KUTV, which agreed to air free public service announcements, as well as do 10 interviews and multiple news stories to promote the meetings. (If you’re wondering if it’s odd, problematic even, to promise news coverage to potential advertisers, yes, it is.)

The core of the problem is this: The Legislature gave the redistricting commission just over $1 million to do all of its work.

A similar commission in New Mexico got $1.5 million; in Colorado, the group drawing just the congressional boundaries got $4 million; the Arizona redistricting commission got $10 million; and the Michigan commission got $13 million to draw three maps.

Not everyone thinks the commission is underfunded, however.

“I honestly think it’s more than adequate,” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who is co-chairing the Legislature’s redistricting committee, told me last week. Ray, who will play a pivotal role in deciding to what extent the Legislature considers the input from the independent commission, said the commission overspent on its outside legal counsel and hired a marketing firm that bought a bounce house to take to county fairs.

“They have not been, in my opinion, a very good steward of that money,” he said. “They haven’t hired anyone to draw maps but they have nine interns and all this dog-and-pony show going to fairs and festivals with booths and bounce houses?”

Facer said the commission does not have a bounce house (which, frankly, is a shame because bounce houses are fun). They do have a booth at local events as part of its public listening tour.

Put them side by side, and the Legislature’s committee and the independent commission are basically the same.

But the Legislature has six or more attorneys or staffers from the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel working for the committee. The independent commission had to hire a firm. The contract was competitively bid through state procurement, but still cost cost about a third of its budget.

Facer said the commission was required to buy its own software and server space, rather than use the state’s, in order to maintain a clear firewall between the two bodies.

Then there is nickel-and-dime stuff: the money spent on marketing, $25,000 paid to the state to set up a website, $25,000 set aside for hotels and meals and miles for the public meetings, $7,000 sent to the Attorney General’s office for a legal opinion.

All told, the commission has about $40,000 left — without, as I mentioned, hiring experts to draw the maps or analyze the finished product.

Facer doesn’t blame the Legislature for the tight budget.

“The Legislature has been terrific to work with. We’ve had a positive relationship,” he said. “Our challenges with resources aren’t because they’re being mean or trying to thwart the process. When our budget was decided, nobody knew what a commission would look like.”

It was, he said, built from the ground up.

But things built from the ground up on the cheap have a way of collapsing under their own weight. There has been some discussion of the commission turning to Better Boundaries to help raise needed funds, but that may not be allowed by law.

Moreover, it shouldn’t have to come to that. A public body doing the public’s work shouldn’t need to look to any private organization for a handout.

The Legislature, which is swimming in surpluses, needs to come up with additional funds to make sure the redistricting work gets the attention and treatment it deserves.

Whether Republican lawmakers like it or not, this is something that Utah voters — more than half a million of them — made clear at the ballot box that they wanted done. They deserve to have it done right.

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