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Enjoy watching legislative sausage-making? Pull up a chair

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, left, hugs Dan Hemmert, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, left, hugs Dan Hemmert, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, right, after Adams was sworn in during the first day of the 2021 general legislative session in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The American ritual of redrawing congressional and legislature boundaries is well underway across the country and in Utah. News reports about the process are filled with acrimony and intrigue. We explore the considerations important to Utah politics.

What are some of the primary issues that lawmakers, interested observers and the independent redistricting commission will encounter as they prepare for a final plan to be adopted in a November special session?

Pignanelli: “The Illinois (redistricting plan) demonstrates that no party has a lock on political virtue.”— Henry Olsen, Washington Post

Thirty-one years ago my wife and I were looking for a home with the hope to someday raise children. She cared about a garage and yard. As a legislator, other concerns burdened me. Having just completed another bruising reelection effort, I demanded this new residence be located in the middle of my legislative district to prevent imaginative political operatives from eliminating my seat during the upcoming redistricting. I was obligated to protect the investment of friends and supporters, along with constituents, who elected me.

These legitimate and reasonable concerns were shared by my legislative colleagues. Often labeled “incumbency protection,” similar convictions have existed for centuries and will into the future. Admittedly, these emotions frequently collide with other elements, including population balancing, communities of interest, municipal boundaries, expanding representation in high growth areas, minority interests, etc.

Targeting incumbents with extreme boundary adjustments (aka “getting cute”) often backfires in Utah. For example, attempts to eliminate state Sen. Scott Howell and Congressman Jim Matheson through creative redistricting bolstered their reelection campaigns and political careers.

My wife and I are now empty nesters in that well-placed Capitol Hill historic home where we raised three incredible children. Another benefit to incumbency protection.

Webb: Redistricting is legislative sausage-making at its finest. If you like pure politics, pull up a chair. In congressional redistricting, Democrats will want to create a safe Democratic district, reasoning that the usual Democratic vote is higher than 25% statewide, so Democrats deserve at least 25% representation in Congress. Of course, carving out a safe Democratic district would be the definition of partisan gerrymandering — something everyone is supposed to be against. Given the reality that control of Congress may hang in the balance, Republicans aren’t likely to fulfill the Democrats’ deepest desires.

Beyond that, debate will occur over whether each congressional district should be comprised of urban, suburban and rural components. Doing so gives each member of Congress a stake in Utah’s sparsely populated wide open spaces and a concern for public lands.

In creating both congressional and legislative districts, a major driver will be the large population shifts that have occurred over the past decade. The fastest growth has occurred in Republican-dominated areas, which naturally means those regions will get more representation.

For the first time, Utah has a formal independent redistricting commission that will provide recommendations to the Legislature. Will it have an impact on the process?

Pignanelli: The redistricting commission was formally created by initiative in 2018. Therefore, it will capture media attention when presenting final proposals.

However, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson are brilliantly promoting alternative means of public participation other than the commission. Lawmakers conducted a series of town halls and aggressively encouraged citizens to access the “Utah Redistricting Legislative Committee” website to develop their own maps. They inspired constituents to be engaged personally in the process. Thus, an alternate source of public opinion other than the commission is developing.

Redistricting results always garner critics and opponents. But the legislative tactics will deflect attacks on the process.

Webb: In many states, independent commissions are bogged down in partisan bickering and anger. By contrast, Utah’s commission members seem to be getting along just fine — at least so far. Liberal interest groups are already demanding that the Legislature simply adopt the recommendations of the redistricting commission, despite not yet knowing what the commission will recommend. They assume the commission boundaries will be better for Democrats than the lines drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Committee. When interest groups say they want “fair and impartial” boundaries it really means they want boundaries drawn that fit their political interests.

Both the legislative committee and the independent commission will do their best to keep cities, counties and “communities of interest” together. While that is important, I guarantee it won’t be possible in every case. To achieve districts of equal population (which is required), some cities and counties will be divided and it won’t be possible to keep all communities of interest intact. Some communities will suffer a bit. To be fair, the pain should be equally split among Republican and Democratic areas.

In some states, the governor has vetoed redistricting legislation or demanded changes. What role will Gov. Spencer Cox play?

Pignanelli: A former lawmaker, Cox understands the constitutional role lawmakers play in drawing boundaries. While offering guidance behind the scenes, he is unlikely to publicly counter final results from the special session.

Webb: The state constitution gives the Legislature the duty to redistrict the state. Short of some egregious offense or power play, I doubt the governor will second-guess legislative action.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.