Idaho lawmakers on Monday proposed a measure with strong Republican support that would dramatically change the state's independent commission in charge of re-drawing congressional and legislative maps every decade.
Redistricting is important because it can decide which party gets the majority of congressional and state legislative seats. It is a contentious issue nationwide.
The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced a proposal that would amend Idaho's Constitution to change the state's redistricting commission from six to nine members, with the state's legislative council deciding the ninth commissioner.
The proposal will go to Idaho voters in November if it passes by a two-thirds majority in the GOP-dominant Senate and House.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum, cast the only no vote during the proposal's first evaluation by lawmakers.
"The current system works, I don't see the reason for this change," she said.
Rep. Tom Loertscher, a seven-term Republican from Iona, and Sen. Marv Hagedorn, a Meridian Republican running for lieutenant governor, are sponsoring the bill.
Currently, districts for Congress and the state Legislature are drawn every 10 years by a six-member commission answerable only to the courts. The majority and minority party leaders in each legislative chamber each select one person to serve on the commission; the state chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties also each select a commissioner. Commissioners cannot be government officials or lobbyists.
At least two-thirds of the commissioners must vote to approve a redistricting map.
It's a bipartisan system in place since 1994 through a constitutional amendment spearheaded by a ballot initiative. Commissions over the years have faced lengthy legal battles before settling on new district boundaries.
Under the new proposal, the majority and minority party leaders in the House and Senate — as well as the state chairs of Idaho's Democratic and Republican parties — would still select one commissioner each. The House speaker and Senate president pro tem would then each select a commissioner. Finally, the legislative council — currently made up of mostly Republican leaders — would select the ninth commissioner.
Idaho has been dominated by Republican-elected officials for the past two decades. Switching the redistricting system to include greater legislative influence means the GOP would have more influence in the state's redistricting process.
It would take just a majority to pass new maps if the proposal is enacted — meaning Republican commissioners could approve a new map without the support of any Democratic commissioners.
Loertscher downplayed concerns about adding political influence to the independent commission, saying more members on the commission are needed to serve as tie-breakers. Loertscher added that the Legislature has the expertise to make sure the remote areas are not overlooked.
"The Legislature should be in charge," Loertscher said. "We know our districts better than anyone else."
Critics have countered the public should be in charge of picking their legislators, not legislators hand-selecting their voters.
According to the redistricting plan approved in 2012, Idaho has 35 legislative districts. Each district has two House seats and one Senate seat.