Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Montana legislative redistricting -- same song, second verse... ("Muskrat Love?")

It's Wednesday, and time for a little Montana politics.

It has been ten years in the brewing, but the kettle is beginning to boil a bit more briskly on that decennial exercise known as legislative redistricting. We have waxed eloquent on the subject before, here, here, and here.

Tom Lutey's article in today's Gazette peers into the process that is currently under way. Once again, just as a decade ago, the non-partisan staffers did their best in doing the legwork of drawing up reasonable boundaries that meet both the requirements of Montana law and the sniff-test of common sense. Once again, Republicans seem to be content with the results and once again, Joe Lamson (this time actually a member of the commission) has drawn up an alternative plan more favorable to Democrats.

While there has been no direct MH examination of the proposed districts or the details surrounding the process, one gets the impression that Democrats realized that they seriously over-reached ten years ago when they captured that redistricting commission, courtesy of the Montana Supreme Court's appointment of a supposedly neutral 5th member -- who wasn't. Back then, they completely threw out the primary working plan created by staffers (as well as all of the alternative plans) and substituted one drawn up by Lamson, one with gerrymandered districts. Take a look at the famous Senate District 22, that ranges from the Billings suburbs to the outskirts of Miles City, or the even more famous "Muskrat Love" Senate District 16. OK, so it was called the "Muskrat District" because of its shape, but the Democrats apparently did "love" it, so why not a little blast from the past? (No, the Captain and Tennille didn't record it first.)

The current working plan, which basically gets a "good enough" vote from Republicans, Lutey reports as being called the "urban-rural" plan. It mostly follows things like county lines, school district lines, and city council district lines. The clue that Democrats know that they aren't going to be able to get as much this time is provided by the fact that their proposed districts this time vary only by a few percentage points, whereas their plan 10 years ago was designed to get the maximum variation (5 percent either way, allowing Republican-leaning districts to be packed with 10% more voters than Democratic-leaning districts) when it was advantageous to do so.

Yellowstone County and Billings city officials spoke in favor of the urban-rural plan, which was similar to a plan the two governments drew up with help from the Billings Chamber of Commerce several months ago. That plan kept all legislative districts within county lines and generally kept Billings’s districts within Billings.

Let us hope that reason prevails and that the neutral 5th member this year is actually neutral. There is, no doubt, room to do some tweaking here and there to improve the working "urban-rural" plan, but if it is thrown out completely for Lamson's alternative plan...

The stakes are high, and not just for purposes of partisanship, since districts that reflect life as it actually is will provide better representation for the members of that district:

Connie Wardell, a School District 2 board member, said her school district, with a student population larger than the individual populations of 44 counties, needed lawmakers who weren’t serving constituents outside of the immediate Billings area.

“Rarely do schools weigh in, but part of the issue we have with funding now is that our delegation is pulled into other counties,” Wardell said. She supported the urban-rural plan for mostly keeping districts within county and city limits.

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