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Lawmakers approve new congressional districts amid partisan bickering

Salt Lake county still split three ways; Demos may sue

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers approved a new map dividing Utah into four new congressional districts late Monday, ending a special session that stretched over several weeks and sparked sometimes harsh partisan debate.

Before the House passed the 19th version of the map, Democrats complained that they had only minutes to review a proposal that had been debated behind closed doors by the majority GOP for several hours.

"This is not just a tweak. It affects real people. It changes who will represent them in the future," Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said, urging the House to "take the time to do what's right."

House Minority Assistant Whip Brian King, D-Salt Lake, listed a number of cities that will be split into two congressional districts, including Salt Lake City, Millcreek, West Valley City, American Fork, Lehi and Park City.

King said unlike a compromise map that he and other Democrats unsuccessfully tried to pass earlier, Salt Lake County would be divided between the 2nd, 3rd and new 4th districts while Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties would be divided between two districts.

But House Republicans, who spent much of the day in closed caucuses, said the map was what the majority party could support in both the House and the Senate.

"Is it the perfect map? No. Is this the perfect process? No," said Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, the co-chairman of the Legislature's Redistricting Committee, which spent months holding public hearings statewide.

"In the end, this is a compromise," said Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, co-chairman of the Redistricting Committee, before the Senate vote. "We made hundreds of changes as a result of public comments made around the state. It was not disregarded."

Senate Democrats also voiced concerns.

"We've managed to accommodate the egos of politicians who want to be congressmen," said Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, noting each district is more than 62 percent Republican.

“I'm concerned about this. I'm distressed about this," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley. “This map has taken a whole and made it a half and has put the west side in jeopardy.”

In the end, the majority party passed the map largely along party lines. It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his action. Lawmakers must adjust congressional boundaries every 10 years based on the census.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, urged residents let to the governor know they want him to veto the map. A protest early Monday evening drew only about two dozen people to the Capitol who voiced displeasure over the process.

The map flips much of the 2nd District — held by Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson — from the east side of the state to the west side. It creates the state's new 4th District largely from western Salt Lake and Utah counties.

The 1st District remains in northern Utah, but expands to include the Uintah Basin. And the 3rd District stretches from eastern Salt Lake County and encompasses the rest of the east side of the state.

The map appeared to be an attempt to address concerns raised by Democrats during a terse exchange on the House floor Monday afternoon about an earlier map advanced by the GOP.

That earlier map was described as a modification of a proposal originally submitted by Provo resident David Garber using the software available on the state's redistricting website.

House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, called the map a "ploy to pull the wool over the public's eyes." He said it was a brand new map that hasn't received a public hearing.

Garber also didn't recognize his work in the proposal.

"What the …?!" he posted under the map on "Is this redistricting process going psychedelic? I feel totally baffled by these four bewildering conglomerations of precincts …"

And on his Facebook page Garber wrote, "Other than the outline of Utah, I don't see any resemblance between these two proposals, do you? Such claims are horribly dishonest …"

Before the controversy, House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said, "I'm all for a citizen map." After the Democratic criticism, Dee asked that the proposal be put on hold so the Republicans could caucus.

Senate Republicans spent much of the day biding their time, waiting for the House to come up with a proposal. They had quickly passed the committee's proposed map at the beginning of the special session, before it stalled nearly two weeks ago.

That map, which came from House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, was the basis for what was ultimately passed. It also prompted the state Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis, to threaten a lawsuit.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said senators were "trying with all we're worth to stick to the first map that came out of the (redistricting) committee." The Senate GOP had opposed any major changes.

House Republicans started the day by voting to close their caucus despite a call from some in the majority party to debate openly.

"I believe we do ourselves a disservice to close the meeting," Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, told the then-open caucus, held in a room crowded with media, Democratic Party leaders and others interested in the debate over dividing the state into four congressional districts.

Closing caucuses during the start of the special session earlier this month created the "wrong impression," Nielson said, that the GOP was drawing maps behind closed doors.

Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley, said if the House Republicans were going to be discussing proposed congressional maps that were already online, "I don't see any reason to close the caucus."

But House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said other bodies closed public meetings when litigation is pending, a reference to Dabakis' threatened lawsuit over redistricting.

"I think the stakes are even higher now," Hughes said. "I think the minority party has made it clear this is going to be a litigious effort." He said closing the meeting "was more appropriate today than ever before."

The caucus loudly voted in favor of closing the caucus.

Outside the now-closed caucus room, Dabakis slammed the House Republicans.

"They're going to do it smoked-filled," he said, calling the action to close the meeting, "sad, sad, sad." He said it showed the GOP's "contempt" for Utahns.

House GOP leaders said they reached no agreement during a meeting earlier this morning. "We're wide open," Lee said before the caucus.

Lawmakers got a late start Monday morning and, on the House side, went immediately into caucuses.

House Democrats, meantime, met several times in open caucus to discuss GOP proposals as well as some of their own.

"Someone has to be the adults," said Litvack, emphasizing the need for compromise. "That's not happening downstairs" in the Republican caucus.

The Democrats' talks centered on Republicans' desire for a mix of rural and urban areas in all four districts.

"Urban-rural is not a redistricting principle," Litvack said. "This is something that's just a preference of the majority party."

King said Democrats feel shut out of the redistricting process.

"Basically, we have the Republicans doing whatever they want without talking to us. That's frustrating for us," he said.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, was not at the session. He was supposed to have returned from a Senate leaders meeting in Argentina, but his plane was grounded by a volcanic eruption.

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