BOISE – Recent calls by majority Republicans in Idaho to put lawmakers back in charge of drawing new legislative districts overlook the angst, delays, multiple court battles and “poisoned” legislative sessions that resulted back then.
“It consumed the legislative activity and agenda completely,” said Pam Ahrens, a former Republican state representative who served during both the 1980s and 1990s reapportionments and chaired the legislative redistricting committee in 1991-’92. “I saw the best and worst of people.”
Said Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist and nationally known expert on redistricting, “It was generally a mess.”
Jim Hansen, a former Democratic state lawmaker who served on Ahrens’ committee, said conspiracy theories abounded, with lawmakers accusing others of shifting district lines to hurt them personally – and therefore refusing to support them on other legislative bills. “It just completely poisoned the atmosphere in the Legislature,” he said.
That’s why two-thirds of Idaho’s Legislature voted in 1993 to turn the task over to a bipartisan citizen commission, and in 1994, Idaho voters agreed.
But this year, the commission deadlocked, forcing the appointment of a new commission, which will start meeting Wednesday. In a late development Friday, the previous commissioners said they reached agreement, but it may be too late for them.
Idaho’s Republican Party platform now calls for returning redistricting to the Legislature. Party Executive Director Jonathan Parker calls the bipartisan citizen commission system “designed for failure,” and says it “doesn’t accurately reflect the political makeup of our state,” where Republicans hold every statewide elected position and 81 percent of the seats in the Legislature.
Ahrens notes that in 1991, the 20-member joint legislative committee she chaired traveled the state and held hearings for seven months, yet was unable to agree on a plan. The plans it finally approved on 11-9 party-line votes forced face-offs between then-Democratic Coeur d’Alene Sens. Mary Lou Reed and Denny Davis and lumped six North Idaho House Democrats into a single two-seat district.
Lawmakers complained that the committee members preserved their own seats and carved up the rest.
The task was complicated that year because the Legislature had to cut 21 seats, since it had passed a constitutional amendment to do away with additional superdistricts that a court had imposed in the 1980s.
“It was really like doing surgery on yourself,” Ahrens said.
The issue dragged all the way through the 1992 legislative session, with another party-line plan vetoed by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus before a new plan finally was signed into law in March. It was challenged in court but survived.
That year’s experience was a cakewalk compared with the 1980s reapportionment – which led to three Idaho Supreme Court decisions, four vetoes, a failed special session and a set of elections in 1982 held with districts that already had been declared unconstitutional. There was even a fistfight between two senators in a Capitol corridor as the redistricting tensions hit their height in March 1982.
That incident, in which Sen. Vernon Brassey, R-Boise, suffered a bloody nose in a scuffle with Sen. J. Wilson Steen, R-Glenns Ferry, came a week after Gov. John Evans vetoed a redistricting plan, declaring that it “places the political interests of one political party above the needs of the people.” Sen. Ron Beitelspacher, D-Grangeville, told a reporter, “It’s been a long week.”
The Legislature passed a new plan on the 73rd and final day of that year’s legislative session, outraging North Idaho residents by splitting Kootenai County between two districts and dividing the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation into four districts. A court struck it down, and a judge wrote his own redistricting plan for Idaho, creating additional super-districts that overlaid the regular districts and increasing the size of the Legislature.
The 1984 Legislature passed yet another new plan on April 2, its final day, declaring that all candidates would have to refile for office in new districts. Then-Chief Deputy Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told the Associated Press, “It’s mass chaos.”
That plan, too, was struck down in court, and the court-written plan held for the rest of the decade.
Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb was GOP caucus chairman for the 1990s redistricting, and he remembers having to tell his own brother, Sen. Russ Newcomb, R-Twin Falls, that he’d had to lump him into the same district as close family friend and longtime Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly. That was the end of Russ Newcomb’s legislative career, while his brother went on to become the longest-serving speaker of the Idaho House.
“It was not pretty,” Bruce Newcomb recalled. “That was a lot of angst for me and my brother.”
Going back even farther, Idaho’s 1970s reapportionment plan was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court – as was the 1960s plan. Moncrief, the political scientist, said he thinks it’s wrong for lawmakers to draw their own new districts “because of the self-interest.” He said, “People should pick their legislators, rather than legislators choosing their voters.”
Ysursa, now Idaho’s secretary of state, said he wouldn’t oppose “some reasonable tweaking” to Idaho’s commission process, such as having the six members elect a seventh member who could serve as a tie-breaker. That would require another constitutional amendment, though, which would need not only two-thirds support from the Legislature, but a majority vote of the people.
Newcomb said, “I hear some say, well, it ought to be skewed politically. I don’t think the people would like that. But they might vote for it – who in the heck knows?”
Ysursa said, “It wasn’t the grand old days to have the Legislature do it,” adding, “Some people have short memories.”