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Eye on Boise: Redistricting panel hears border tales

BOISE – Imagine a legislative or congressional district line that runs through someone’s house – really.

Idaho has those now, according to testimony at the first public hearing on redistricting, held last week.

“We’ve had in the past to actually visit homes to figure out where master bedrooms were, to figure out where somebody voted,” Phil McGrane, chief deputy Ada County clerk, told Idaho’s new redistricting commission. “It creates tremendous voter confusion and frustration.”

Here’s how it happened: In undeveloped areas, district lines followed precinct lines or city boundaries that were based on things like section lines or irrigation canals. Over time, those areas were developed into subdivisions. The canals were covered or moved. The section lines were immaterial. The city boundaries changed.

“We’ve seen tremendous change over the course of 10 years,” McGrane told the commission.

The result: district lines that cut through subdivisions, sometimes putting residents of three homes in a subdivision in a different district than their neighbors – or, worse, slice through homes.

McGrane said the problem can be avoided by using major roads as boundaries.

“Using major streets to the best extent possible … is much more reliable, and it will last long into the future,” he said.

First deadlock

Idaho’s redistricting commission didn’t take long to get locked into its first party-line split – over, of all things, its public hearing schedule.

During the panel’s first meeting last week, Democratic commissioners proposed adopting a public hearing schedule presented by the commission’s staff, which called for five hearings outside the Treasure Valley in June. Republican commissioners offered a substitute motion with an entirely different schedule, calling for 10 out-of-the-area hearings between now and July 1, adding hearings in Sandpoint, both Lewiston and Moscow rather than one or the other, and Soda Springs, Burley and Hailey.

Evan Frasure, GOP co-chairman, said the alternative schedule would add hearings in areas where lawsuits arose 10 years ago or where current districts were controversial, including Soda Springs and Sandpoint.

Surprised Democratic commissioners questioned the budgetary impact of the additional hearings. Commissioner Lorna Finman, of Rathdrum, said she’d forgo any compensation, including travel and per diem, to help offset the cost of additional hearings. Commission staffers reported that the commission’s budget could easily accommodate the additional hearings. Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane said she’d already arranged with her employer for time off for the original, staff-proposed schedule. After some sparring, the Democrats requested a break for a caucus.

Asked during the break why the Republicans didn’t share their alternative schedule with their Democratic counterparts before proposing it, GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said, “We just had the time to turn to that, just over lunch. Things are moving quickly.” Added Finman, “Everybody’s got busy schedules.” Said Frasure, “We just want to have more public input.”

After the break, during which Frasure spent some time chatting with his Democratic counterparts, the commission reconvened and both the Democrats and the Republicans withdrew their motions, putting off the issue for a day. “Hopefully, we can come to an agreeable conclusion on that in a short time frame,” Frasure said.

Sure enough, by the next day both sides were able to agree on a hearing schedule. But it was an early lesson in how the commission will have to work together. It’s split down the middle between the two parties, so neither party can pass anything on its own. They’ll have to reach out across party lines.

Could cut House in half

When Brian Kane, deputy Idaho attorney general, briefed the redistricting commission on legal issues, he was asked about constitutional requirements on the number of state legislators and districts. Kane said the commissioners, if they wanted to, could create a plan for 35 senators and 35 representatives – rather than 70 representatives as now. His comment prompted a moment of stunned silence.

Historically, he then added, Idaho’s always had two representatives per senator. The Idaho Constitution allows between 30 and 35 senators, divided into districts, and no more than two representatives per senator; there are now 35 districts, each with one senator and two representatives.