Redistricting chair wants more compromises

Independent Record (Helena, MT) - Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Author: CHARLES S. JOHNSON IR State Bureau
The presiding officer of the panel setting new state legislative district boundaries for the next decade said Monday he hopes the two Democratic and two Republican members can agree on more compromises as the week goes on. 

The comments by Jim Regnier, the presiding officer and a former state Supreme Court justice, came after a few partisan skirmishes during the commission’s first day of votes. It hopes to have a 100-district plan tentatively approved by Friday. 

“I’m not getting a lot of compromise,” Regnier said afterward. “I’m hoping for more compromises, but I think we’re getting a lot of information passing back and forth. When both sides understand that neither side has my vote, I think it opens it up to more compromise.” 

The panel began setting some tentative House districts Monday and will work the rest of the week to complete its draft plan. It agreed on four of the six Indian districts required by federal law and concurred on districts for Livingstone, Miles City and three counties, Carbon, Pondera and Teton. 

The commission hit a few partisan snags over House districts in Kalispell and Lake County. 

It is charged with drawing 100 House districts, which are adjusted every 10 years to reflect population changes found in the once-a-decade U.S. Census and other factors. Later, commissioners will combine two House districts to create the 50 Senate districts. A hearing on its final plan is set for later this fall. 

Whenever the commission votes on the final plan, it becomes law and is not subject to legislative approval. 

In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court appointed Regnier, a mediator who lives in Lakeside, to be the neutral chair of the five-member commission and break any ties if the two Democrats and two Republicans deadlock. 

The two Democratic commissioners, Joe Lamson of Helena and Pat Smith of Arlee, have had their proposal, dubbed the “communities plan,” for months. On Monday, the Republican commissioners, Jon Bennion of Clancy and Linda Vaughey of Helena, unveiled their “criteria plan,” which revised some of their earlier proposals. 

The Democratic commissioners sparred with their Republican counterpart on some issue and vice versa, forcing Regnier to break several ties. Sometimes Regnier aligned with Democrats and at other times with Republicans. 

On Tuesday, the panel will start with some more urban areas, such as Missoula, and try to iron out a compromise over Kalispell. Drawing districts in urban areas will be “more difficult and necessarily more contentious,” Regnier said. 

When the panel completes its work, “we’re going to have a map stitched together with a lot of votes,” Regnier said. 

Commissioners from both sides, while saying they hoped they could reach agreements where possible, disagreed over who was encouraging and who was blocking compromises. 

“I’ve got a briefcase of potential compromises across the state, but they have to be fair compromises,” Lamson said afterward. 

He said Republicans resisted leaving a Kalispell House district essentially as it is where House candidates from either party have a fair shot at being elected. It’s one of the few Flathead districts where Democrats have a chance of winning, he said. 

“The way it’s proposed by the Republicans, it tips the balance where that wouldn’t be possible,” Lamson said. 

Bennion said he saw some signs of hope, but was “slightly discouraged” after Monday. 

“Most of the districts we adopted today were from the Democrats’ plan or largely based off the Democrats plan,” he said. “There were areas where we could agree. For the rest of the week, we look forward to championing our ideas, which largely came from the public.” 

Bennion added, “We’d like to see some more compromises from the Democrats on some of our districts. We’re not out to get everything we want.”