How many times have you heard the words “nonpartisan” or “bipartisan” or “nonpolitical” uttered by politicians right before they do something that is clearly political?
My guess is we’d all be rich if we have a $1 for each time that happens. It’s as if labeling something nonpolitical somehow makes it so, even if what they are about to do is clearly political.
That’s how we were introduced to a Senate bill dictating how redistricting would happen after the 2010 census.
Those on the left in leadership in Topeka are pushing this bill: Sens. Steve Morris and Derek Schmidt (Republicans), along with Sen. Anthony Hensley and Rep. Paul Davis (Democrats).
The bill, SB 291, is just eight pages long, so I’d encourage you to take a look at it.
If you do, have some strong coffee first because the details the description starts with are enough to resolve most cases of insomnia. But, as they say, the devil is in the details, and if you read far enough, you find them.
You see, this plan they’ve dreamed up would require the Senate majority leader (Schmidt), the House majority leader (Ray Merrick), the Senate minority leader (Hensley), and the House minority leader (Davis) to each name one person to a “temporary redistricting advisory commission.”
The list of persons not eligible to be appointed is long. Are you a city council person or township trustee elected in a partisan race? Ineligible. Are you a party officer? Ineligible. Do you work for the state? Ineligible. Is your cousin a state or federal office holder? Ineligible.
We wouldn’t want anyone with a potential bias or experience in politics or government on this commission. Never mind that very political persons are appointing these people, and that no specific expertise is required to be appointed (I don’t see a best friend or business partner ruled out, by the way) and the commission is required to rely on state employees with legislative research for their data.
Those backing this bill claim that removing this responsibility from the Legislature would make the process non-political and therefore leads to a better outcome.
Under this bill, we’ll have a new commission, not directly accountable to the voters, deciding what district you will live in for the next 10 years.
Now you have four political appointees. Who’s going to lead? Well, that’s up to them. They pick a fifth person to chair their temporary commission. So, we have a new commission, not directly accountable to the voters, deciding what district you will live in for the next 10 years.
Don’t like what they decide? There’s not much your representative or senator can do, even if they listen to your concerns, other than voting no time after time. It’s not until they’ve voted down proposed bills twice and are voting on a third bill that they are allowed to make anything but technical amendments.
Can you imagine the political fallout from voting down the plan twice and then amending the third one in an election year? Even the bravest of politicians probably won’t want to take that on!
The closest the public would come to being able to hold the commission accountable for the plans they present is to hold their representative and senator accountable in 2012 for whom they elected as majority or minority leader in their chamber in 2008 (for the Senate) or 2010 (for the House).
Perhaps the most important vote they make is for these leadership positions, but explaining that to the public and then making it a campaign issue is challenging at best.
And can you see the games for 2020 now? Promise me my friend will be appointed by you to the redistricting commission and I’ll vote for you for majority (or minority) leader. Suddenly the “nonpolitical” commission is tied to some very real political actions in a way that the public rarely sees.
Many of the rules for the commission to follow that are spelled out in this bill are similar to how redistricting was handled the last time around – without special legislation to make it happen. The one big change? Public hearings happen after a plan is finalized.
But there is more in this bill and it’s this part that is the most troubling: the commission isn’t allowed to reveal any of the details they are working on to the public or the Legislature until after they’ve finalized them.
This reminds me of the Ethics Commission or the Supreme Court nominating commission, both of which deliberate and come to conclusions in secret executive sessions and then make an announcement.
Say what you will about politicians making political decisions, at least they do their deliberations in public with input from citizens.
Say what you will about politicians making political decisions, at least when senators and representatives made up the committee the last time around, public hearings and committee meetings and decision making was done in full view and with the participation of the public, with much input from citizens around the state.
That’s one reason the lines for Congress were drawn as they were in 2002, as many wanted certain institutions or military bases to be in the same district and their elected representatives listened to their concerns. Moving this very important decision-making process to a closed-door, small, unaccountable-to-the-public commission is a step backwards for open transparency in government.
Will this bill see the light of day? It remains to be seen. Right now it’s sitting in the Senate Federal and State Committee – but if leadership wants it out, they can quickly call for a hearing and a vote and have it on the Senate floor in less than a day.
Assuming it passes the Senate, it still has to get through the House, and so far House leaders have been cool to the idea. As Speaker Mike O’Neal said recently about redistricting, “I think that is uniquely a legislative function.”
Let’s hope others realize this as well and this feel-good bill dies a well-deserved death.