By Grant Schulte The Associated Press
A Nebraska legislative committee kicked off its effort to redraw the state’s political boundaries on Monday, showing early signs of an urban-rural divide as some lawmakers questioned whether rural population declines were as severe as census numbers show.
Data presented to the committee confirmed what lawmakers already knew: that legislative districts in rural, western Nebraska all lost residents, while suburban Omaha and Lincoln posted big gains.
One district in the remote Nebraska Panhandle lost 15.5% of its population from 2010 to 2020, while a fast-developing Omaha-area district gained 31.1% in that time.
Members of the Redistricting Committee approved some general guidelines Monday for how they’ll proceed with the process. Lawmakers are allowed to deviate from the census numbers by as much as 5% within individual legislative districts and 1% in the state’s three congressional districts, giving them wiggle room that different groups may try to use to their advantage.
The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, of Omaha, said she knows national and state political parties will try to influence the process, and lawmakers will have to make tough decisions. The committee has five Republicans, including Linehan, and four Democrats. Its membership is evenly divided among the state’s three congressional districts.
The process is expected to be heavily partisan, with Republicans in the ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature striving to maintain GOP dominance and Democrats looking for any edge they can find. At stake is the shape of the state’s legislative and congressional districts, as well as less controversial districts for Nebraska’s courts, the state Public Service Commission, the State Board of Education and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
State Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer, said he was concerned that rural areas may have been undercounted during the once-a-decade head count because some residents didn’t respond to the Census Bureau’s requests for information.
“It sounds to me like we’re left with a little bit of a question mark,” said Briese, a Republican.
Staff members for the Legislative Research Office, which is helping lawmakers with redrawing the lines, said the numbers gleaned from the census are generally accurate, and the bureau uses an algorithm to compensate for those who don’t respond.
Urban senators said the underreporting concerns could just as easily apply to some of their densely populated neighborhoods.
“There’s going to be people in every legislative district that don’t answer their door,” said Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat from Omaha.
Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, said lawmakers ought to “start with a baseline of trusting the data” as they redraw the boundaries. The process is likely to shift more political power to the Omaha and Lincoln areas, and rural Nebraska could lose one of its legislative districts.
The 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses three-fourths of Nebraska, is likely to expand even more to compensate for population losses, but the state isn’t expected to lose any congressional districts.
Sen. Carol Blood, of Bellevue, called on her fellow committee members to make the redistricting process more transparent than typical legislative bills, which are given public committee hearings but are discussed and voted on during executive sessions that are only open to the news media.
Blood said the public should be allowed to see “how the sausage is made” by allowing regular citizens to watch their discussions. Others senators said the press already fills that role, ensuring transparency but allowing lawmakers to discuss issues without special interest groups in the room.
“I think every opportunity we have to be transparent, we should take,” said Blood, a potential Democratic candidate for governor.
On Friday, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts called the Legislature into a special session for redistricting that will start Sept. 13. The process is usually completed earlier in the year, during the Legislature’s regular session, but the release of census data was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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