BOISE — There are days when the Idaho Legislature resembles a much-higher-stakes three-ring circus, and Friday was one of them, as a bitter dispute over a GOP attempt to engineer a Republican majority on Idaho’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission led to a walkout, a breakdown in procedures on the House floor and fraying tempers all around.
It all happened at the same time a Senate committee debated a highly controversial constitutional amendment on victims’ rights, and both the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees held a packed and highly emotional hearing at which Idahoans from across the state pleaded with lawmakers to enact the Medicaid expansion initiative voters approved in November.
Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, proposed a constitutional amendment to add a seventh member to the six-member citizen Redistricting Commission, which now, under an amendment to the state Constitution that voters enacted in 1994, is evenly split between the two parties. Harris’ bill, just introduced on Wednesday, would let the state’s top elected officials — all Republicans — pick that final tie-breaking commission member. It would also require just a simple majority, rather than two-thirds, of the commission to approve a new redistricting plan.
Redistricting matters because it’s how legislative and congressional district lines are redrawn after the U.S. Census every 10 years to reflect population shifts — and it can spell the end of a political career for a lawmaker who gets drawn into an unfriendly district, or one that also includes another incumbent.
Majority GOP lawmakers in Idaho have chafed at the bipartisan process over the years. Then-House Speaker Lawerence Denney notably tried, unsuccessfully, to fire one of his party’s commission members when he didn’t like how the process was going.
Boise State University political scientist emeritus Gary Moncrief, a nationally known expert on redistricting, said Friday morning on Boise State Public Radio that the “Democrats tried this trick in New Jersey,” but it was stopped short by public outcry. And with the big GOP majorities in the Idaho Legislature, he said that may be what it would take to stop it here, as well.
The proposal, HJR 2, is a constitutional amendment, so to pass, it would need two-thirds approval from each house of the Legislature and then a majority vote of the people at the next general election.
Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, the House assistant minority leader, said the Republicans are “abusing majority power to entrench themselves for perpetuity.”
“It’s just remarkable that 80 percent of the Legislature and every single statewide office and every single federal office is not enough for them,” Rubel said, “and now they need to use the line-drawing process to somehow expand that supermajority and somehow diminish whatever remaining dissenting viewpoint there is in the state.”
House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding said, “I don’t see it as a partisan issue. I see it as a political enemy issue.” If top Republican state elected officials get to elect a tie-breaker to the Redistricting Commission, “anybody who doesn’t fit into the frame of the people who control that commission are going to lose on this deal,” he said. “That means people who are not in alignment with leadership. That means Democrats. And it certainly means emerging cities.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, defended the House GOP’s moves. “It’s certainly well within the protocol on time frame,” Bedke said. “I get the fact that it’s unpleasant to be in the minority, but those are the cold hard facts in Idaho.
“Is the resolution the resolution that will ultimately end up passing? I don’t know that it is, I don’t know that it isn’t,” he said. “I will certainly initiate a dialogue. … But they have to be aware that there’s a majority of Republicans that believe that there’s a problem with the Redistricting Commission as presently constituted.”
When the Center for Public Integrity conducted an extensive “State Integrity Investigation” in 2012, assessing all 50 states’ accountability and transparency, Idaho got a D-minus overall and ranked 41st. But for its redistricting process, it earned an A.
During the House State Affairs Committee’s hearing on HJR 2 on Friday, eight people testified, all but one against the bill. Most were Boise residents who said they’d just heard about the measure on the radio, and rushed over to support the current bipartisan redistricting system.
Harris told the committee, which he chairs, “There’s very little room for gerrymandering or other types of foul play. You look at our maps, they’re very square and divided by counties and highways and so on.”
Actually, Idaho’s peculiar shape and topography, with its skinny panhandle in the north, its population center in the southwest, and vast tracts of sparsely populated, rural land elsewhere, make the state particularly difficult to divide into equal-population districts that aren’t oddly misshapen; they also vary hugely in geographic size.
Before the vote, the panel’s three Democrats walked out, saying their constituents hadn’t had enough notice of the hearing on the constitutional amendment. “Yes, there was a bare minimum of 24 hours, but this is a constitutional amendment that will affect every member and citizen of Idaho,” said Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello. Republicans on the panel then passed the bill, forwarding it to the full House.
The House then convened for its morning session, and Erpelding objected to every motion to waive the full reading of bills — meaning the two bills and one resolution on the calendar had to be read in full before House members could debate and vote on them, a lengthy process. Erpelding said he’s prepared to continue objecting for the rest of the legislative session if the Republicans persist with the redistricting change.
“If they want to speed up the process, I can slow down the process,” he said.
Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, sponsor of one of the measures, said after House Chief Clerk Carrie Maulin finished reading its full text, “I’d like to compliment our clerk on her diction and enunciation,” and Bedke responded, “You’ll find none better.”
“It’s no secret that the Republican Party has been contemplating this for years now,” Bedke said after the House adjourned. “Obviously we’re semi-high centered.”
House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, sent out a press release on Friday saying the change to the redistricting process “will prevent costly litigation in the future,” and adding, “That’s just good policy.”
Asked Friday if the change would reduce the number of lawsuits over redistricting, Boise State University political scientist Stephanie Witt answered flatly, “No.” If anything, giving the process a partisan cast is likely to lead to more lawsuits, Witt said.
Idaho has faced litigation over its redistricting plans for decades, since long before it created a bipartisan citizen commission.
Before the commission, lawmakers themselves drew the new district lines. That process was marked by angst, delays, multiple court battles and “poisoned” legislative sessions.
“It consumed the legislative activity and agenda completely,” former Republican state Rep. Pam Ahrens said in 2011. She 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.”
Moncrief said, “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.