Politicians urge removing redistricting politics
ST. PAUL - Some Minnesota political heavyweights believe the state's system for deciding legislative and congressional district boundaries is broken.
The current system that leaves the job to the Legislature allows incumbent lawmakers to "seek their own constituencies, as opposed to the constituencies seeking their public servants," former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson told a Senate committee Friday.
Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale are championing a proposal that recommends the Legislature create a bipartisan panel of retired appellate judges to draw new district boundaries for state senators and representatives and Minnesota's U.S. House members.
The Legislature is responsible for drawing new district boundaries of near-equal population size every decade, using U.S. census data. However, lawmakers often have not reached agreement on redistricting plans, leaving the job up to the courts.
"This system just doesn't work," said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who had to appoint a judicial panel to resolve the redistricting dispute in 2002.
A Senate state and local government committee also heard from former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. The Erskine Democrat said while he was involved in four redistricting plans since the early 1970s, the process never worked well.
"The Legislature has not been able to get it done," Moe said of recent redistricting attempts.
A bipartisan commission would make more legislative and congressional seats competitive, Moe said. That would force lawmakers to focus on issues that are attractive to a wider audience, rather than just their loyal supporters.
Mondale, the state's Democratic patriarch, said political experts can use technology to draft districts so that incumbent politicians are protected. That technology, along with increased partisanship, means there are few competitive races, particularly for congressional seats.
"Politicians have become increasingly able to pick their own voters," Mondale said.
While former elected officials occasionally appear before lawmakers to support various causes, Capitol testimony from a group as well known and politically diverse as Friday's panel is uncommon.
Minnesota has not seen redistricting scandals like those in Texas and elsewhere, but former Secretary of State Joan Growe told senators Minnesota's reputation as a good-government state could be threatened if a bipartisan commission does not take over the once-a-decade task.
Sen. Joe Gimse, who in his first term has not experienced a redistricting plan, said Friday's testimony was informative. The Willmar Republican said he may support a new process, "taking it out of the partisan, political environment of the Legislature."
Gimse said he would even consider supporting an effort to amend the state constitution to create a bipartisan commission.
"That will solve the problem well into the future," he said.
A constitutional amendment probably is unlikely. Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, who leads the committee that took testimony Friday, said she may not push for her bill calling for an amendment. Instead, she said she may support efforts to form a commission that drafts new redistricting plans and then allow lawmakers to approve or deny the plans.
The Legislature will debate redistricting proposals after it returns to the Capitol Feb. 12 for its regular session.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports efforts to make redistricting less partisan, said spokesman Brian McClung.
"Decreasing the Legislature's influence over redistricting could very well help," McClung said, adding the governor will consider proposals that accomplish that goal.