Politicians urge reform for redistricting system

Duluth News Tribune (MN) - Saturday, January 12, 2008
Author: state capitol bureau
ST. PAUL " Some Minnesota political heavyweights believe the state's system for deciding legislative and congressional district boundaries is broken. 

The current system that leaves the job to the Legislature allows incumbent lawmakers to "seek their own constituencies, as opposed to the constituencies seeking their public servants," former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson told a Senate committee Friday. 

Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale are championing a proposal that recommends the Legislature create a bipartisan panel of retired appellate judges to draw new district boundaries for state senators and representatives and Minnesot's U.S. House members. 

The Legislature is responsible for drawing new district boundaries of near-equal population size every decade, using U.S. census data. However, lawmakers often have not reached agreement on redistricting plans, leaving the job up to the courts. 

"This system just doesn't work," said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who had to appoint a judicial panel to resolve the redistricting dispute in 2002. 

A Senate state and local government committee also heard from former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. The Erskine Democrat said while he was involved in four redistricting plans since the early 1970s, the process never worked well. 

"The Legislature has not been able to get it done," Moe said of recent redistricting attempts. 

A bipartisan commission would make more legislative and congressional seats competitive, Moe said. That would force lawmakers to focus on issues that are attractive to a wider audience, rather than just their loyal supporters. 

Mondale, the state's Democratic patriarch, said political experts can use technology to draft districts so that incumbent politicians are protected. That technology, along with increased partisanship, means there are few competitive races, particularly for congressional seats. 

"Politicians have become increasingly able to pick their own voters," Mondale said. 

While former elected officials occasionally appear before lawmakers to support various causes, Capitol testimony from a group as well known and politically diverse as Friday's panel is uncommon. 

Minnesota has not seen redistricting scandals like those in Texas and elsewhere, but former Secretary of State Joan Growe told senators Minnesot's reputation as a good-government state could be threatened if a bipartisan commission does not take over the once-a-decade task. 

The Legislature will debate redistricting proposals after it returns to the Capitol on Feb. 12 for its regular session. Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.