March 2, 2021

Compromise redistricting bill advances unanimously from Senate committee

Matthew Reichbach

Lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee came to a quick compromise Monday on a measure they hope will set the state’s sometimes controversial redistricting process on a smooth path via an independent, bipartisan panel of people to redraw voting district boundaries.

A substitute bill introduced by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat, gained the committee’s unanimous approval, replacing two competing Senate bills — including one sponsored by Ivey-Soto.

Monday’s deal came only after Ivey-Soto took a verbal swipe at critics who accused him of opposing the idea of an independent redistricting committee because his initial bill called for a committee composed of legislators.

“I take a little personal some of the comments that have been made about the perspective of the Legislature in the redistricting process,” he said. 

He said his name had been used as a “barrier to independent redistricting. Shame on you, shame on you for doing that.”

Ivey-Soto often has said he introduced Senate Bill 15, creating a 16-member committee of lawmakers, as a placeholder to ensure the legislative discussion on redistricting took place during this year’s 60-day session.

But as the various bills on redistricting stalled or failed to get an initial hearing, advocates for an independent panel began suggesting Ivey-Soto was holding things up on the Senate side. 

Meanwhile, Albuquerque Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat, and Mark Moores, a Republican, introduced Senate Bill 199, which would create an independent commission made up of seven people who are not currently serving as lawmakers.

Like its companion bill, House Bill 211, SB 199 would require the commission to hold public meetings on the process and come up with three to five options for the Legislature to consider during a special session later this year. 

Both bills state that if the Legislature does not agree on a redistricting plan, the commission would decide which option best satisfies the state’s redistricting criteria.

Ivey-Soto said that provision, which he called illogical, goes against the state constitution on legislative matters.

“I don’t see how, if we can’t select a plan, we have to select a plan,” he said. 

Like SB 199, his substitute bill still calls for a seven-member panel. But it also prohibits a majority of Democrats or Republicans and only requires the commission to come up with three plans for the Legislature to consider.

Finally, there is no language in the substitute bill that would force the Legislature to accept any of the submitted plans. 

Both Ortiz y Pino and Moores voiced support for the new bill, and the committee members voted 10-0 to approve it after about an hour of debate Monday.

Ortiz y Pino said Ivey-Soto’s bill “retains the core of what we were trying to do … while dealing with the potential challenges around the constitutionality of it.”

The redistricting effort has become a high-profile issue in this year’s legislative session, with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, publicly speaking against the bipartisan plan to create an independent panel to carry out the effort.

In a recent Zoom conference with Retake Our Democracy, an organization focused on social justice, Egolf said he did not understand why fellow Democrats would support an independent panel and therefore “give advantage to the people who are trying to make the world a dirtier place, take rights away from people, make it harder to vote — all the things that we oppose. I don’t want to make it easier for them to do it.”

Redistricting is required in every state once a decade, following the national census. The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data is not expected to be released until at least September, due to delays largely caused by the pandemic.

The Legislature plans to convene a special session in November or December to select a final plan for new district maps for U.S. Congress, the state Public Education Commission and the state legislative seats.

The goal of redistricting is to ensure the number of people in each voting district remains fairly equal as populations shift.

The fear, some say, is that lawmakers will take advantage of the redistricting process to protect party strongholds — in essence, picking their constituents rather than letting their constituents choose who will represent them.

Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Legislature with a majority of Democrats following the 2010 census.

The court costs associated with the legal wrangling ranged between $6 million and $7 million, according to media reports at the time. 

Ortiz y Pino said Monday the legislative efforts in the Senate are an attempt at “finding a way to avoid litigation by making the process as publicly involved as possible while retaining the Legislature’s final authority over whichever maps are finally adopted.” 

The substitute Senate bill next goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. Meanwhile, HB 211 awaits a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.