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Editorial: Redistricting isn't about battle lines

Star Tribune, December 22, 2010

Professor Larry Jacobs pens an editorial encouraging the governor to appoint an impartial commission for redistricting.

"History suggests that if the new Legislature and governor choose to shoulder the redistricting responsibility themselves, they are in for a time-consuming, highly politicized and ultimately fruitless fight, leaving the courts to draw the final maps."

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12.22.10 Strib Jacobs Redistricting.pdf


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Aggressive efforts to count every Minnesotan in the 2010 census paid off for Minnesota.

The state's big census push last spring in all likelihood provided the nearly 2,000-person advantage that allowed the state to keep eight seats in the U.S. House for another 10 years.

That's good news, especially considering the state's below-average growth in the past decade -- 7.8 percent, compared with a 9.7 percent national average -- and America's continuing population drift toward the southwest.

Other Midwestern states -- Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio -- weren't as fortunate. They learned Tuesday that their congressional delegations will shrink.

Losing a congressional seat would have been a blow to Minnesota, with implications beyond a career change for one of the eight Minnesotans now serving in the U.S. House.

The opportunity to bring a Minnesota perspective to national policymaking would have been lessened. The state would have lost an Electoral College vote, costing it influence in presidential elections.

Retaining all of its districts also spares the state from what would have been an intensely partisan tussle over how to shrink eight districts into seven.

But redistricting still presents ample opportunity for a DFL governor and Republican-controlled Legislature to disagree.

Minnesota's population has shifted toward exurbia and away from rural and inner-city areas in the past decade, and legislative and congressional district lines must be adjusted accordingly to equalize their populations.

History suggests that if the new Legislature and governor choose to shoulder the redistricting responsibility themselves, they are in for a time-consuming, highly politicized and ultimately fruitless fight, leaving the courts to draw the final maps.

That has been the story in four of the past five Minnesota redistricting exercises.

This year ought to be different.

That's so especially given the gravity of the immediate challenge before state lawmakers -- closing the largest gap in state history between revenues and scheduled spending. That problem, not a new district map, deserves the best of lawmakers' time and talent.

The 2011 Legislature would be wise to hand off mapmaking responsibilities at the outset to an appointed commission. That's what happens in 21 of the 50 states, under a variety of rubrics that either involve elected officials or keep them on the sidelines.

The commission proposal that has gained traction in Minnesota would have the Legislature assign the mapmaking next spring to five retired district judges, four chosen by the four partisan legislative caucuses and one by the other four members.

No judge formerly elected to partisan office would be eligible. The panel's recommendations would return to the Legislature as many as three times for yes-or-no votes, with no amendments allowed.

The governor would have to sign the bill. If that process failed to produce consensus, then the courts would take over.

That sensible proposal emanates from a study sponsored by the Humphrey Institute and has the backing of a bipartisan group of elder statesmen, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, a DFLer, and former Republican Govs. Al Quie and Arne Carlson.

It won state Senate approval in 2009, and received expressions of interest from Gov.-elect Mark Dayton during the fall campaign.

Since then, however, the commission idea has faded from view, as both Dayton and the Republican Legislature gear up to tackle the job.

Leading legislators have been given the redistricting portfolio -- Republicans Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina and Rep. Sarah Anderson of Plymouth, and DFL Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, to name three.

The Republican Party has tapped a GOP Senate staffer, Michael Brodkorb (who is also the party's deputy chairman), to keep close tabs on its redistricting interests.

The DFL Senate staff's redistricting guru, Peter Wattson, has been tapped by Dayton as his general counsel and, undoubtedly, his redistricting adviser.

Able as those lawmakers are, it's hard to argue that they will overcome the partisan divide they bring to the work, or that redistricting is the highest and best use of their abilities in coming months.

The Civic Caucus, a bipartisan group of good government advocates, collected 118 signatures last week in support of assigning Minnesota's redistricting to a commission. We second their motion.

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