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Redistricting battle hits a bump

Utah Supreme Court says $1M price tag for study is acceptable

The Utah Supreme Court Friday quashed a legal challenge to the $1 million price tag affixed to an independent redistricting commission effort one group hopes to put on the ballot in 2010.

Fair Boundaries, a group formed to convince Utah voters there should be an 11-member independent panel to redraw voting districts after the next federal census, claimed the price attached to the effort by a state fiscal office was intentionally exorbitant.

"The cost estimate is outrageously high … it comes from the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget who get their information from legislative research," said Merrill Nelson, a former state legislator acting as a spokesperson for Fair Boundaries. "They get their marching orders from legislative leaders …This is a tactic to undermine our effort."

Nelson said the high cost estimate indicates that the Legislature, in the event an independent redistricting commission initiative is approved by voters, would conduct its own redistricting effort in parallel with the new commission — a move that undermines the "spirit of an independent effort."

The court, in its ruling, said it "did not read the plain language of the initiative to prohibit the Legislature from undertaking separate research and analysis of redistricting issues at any time."

In a press release following the decision, Fair Boundaries said it had obtained a memo from the Utah Attorney General's office indicating that the cost of redistricting following the 2000 census came in at about a third of the $1 million assessment attached to the independent commission proposal.

Assistant attorney general Thom Roberts said Friday that that was about the amount of a one-time appropriation in 2001 that mostly went to pay for new hardware and software needed for redistricting. However, it did not reflect the full cost of the job, which was completed with labor paid for out of the Office for Legislative Research's general appropriation.

Roberts also confirmed that some "parallel efforts" would take place if a redistricting commission was formed, but that was a necessity of providing legislators with a set of baseline information that would be required to evaluate the findings of the advisory board.

Fair Boundaries' attorney, Lisa Watts Baskin, argued before the court that any research or analysis on the part of the Legislature should not occur until after the findings of an independent commission are submitted. The court rejected that argument, and Roberts noted that affidavits submitted by legislative research in the case indicated that the restriction would place impractical time constraints on the redistricting process.

Fair Boundaries board member Nikki Norton said Friday that the creation of an independent redistricting commission should be viewed in the same light as other legislative advisory committees, like the State Board of Regents, tasked with advising lawmakers on higher education issues.

"Setting up an independent, unpaid commission tasked with redistricting is not going to create an undue burden," Norton said. "What it will do is create a redistricting map that takes politics out of the equation … and if legislators want to change it, they'll be obligated to tell the voters why."

Nelson said the court's decision will not dissuade Fair Boundaries' effort to get the initiative on the ballot in 2010, and the process of gathering the required estimated 95,000 signatures from registered voters will begin immediately.

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com