New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf is facing sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike over his opposition to having an independent commission oversee the state’s redistricting process. In particular, members of both parties were thrown by comments the Santa Fe Democrat made during a Zoom conference last week with Retake Our Democracy, an organization focused on social justice. Part of the discussion centered on bipartisan proposals in the Legislature to create a commission to take on the often controversial task of redrawing electoral district boundaries based on new census data. Egolf told panelists the plans could weaken Democrats’ advantage in the Legislature, “and the [Democratic] agenda goes out the window.” He said he did not understand why “Democrats want to unilaterally disarm and 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.
Three bills lighting the way for the creation of a redistricting plan in New Mexico are waiting for their moment in the legislative spotlight.
But as the legislative clock moves closer to deadline — Thursday was the midway point of this year’s 60-day legislative session — supporters and sponsors of some of those bills worry they might not get a hearing in time.
Kathleen Burke, project director of Fair Districts for New Mexico, an Albuquerque advocacy group pushing for a fair redistricting plan, said she doesn’t want to see Senate Bill 199 “go where legislation goes to die.” Like its mirror image in the House of Representatives — House Bill 211 — SB 199 wold create a seven-member redistricting commission and lay out requirements for choosing members. It also would require the commission to hold at least six public meetings to generate input and would give it the responsibility of coming up with a number of options for redistricting. The commission then would deliver those plans to the Legislature, which would act on redistricting during a special session later this year. The Legislature could select one plan without amendment and present it to the governor for approval.
A House committee on Monday unanimously approved a bill that would allow the state to prepare for the major task of redrawing legislative districts based on population data from the 2020 census.
Among other measures, House Bill 211, co-sponsored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives, creates a seven-member redistricting commission, lays out requirements for choosing those members, initiates a series of public meetings and gives the panel the responsibility of coming up with a number of options for redistricting.
“By creating new rules and processes, this makes the process more engaging … with the public,” said Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences and one of the sponsors of the legislation. The bill, if signed into law, would allow the commission to adopt three to five district plans for four elected bodies — the state House and Senate, congressional districts, and the Public Education Commission. The commission then would deliver those plans to the Legislature, which would act on redistricting during a special session later this year. The Legislature could select one plan without amendment and present it to the governor for approval. If the Legislature does not select a district plan from any one set of plans, it will be required by law to select the plan the commission says best satisfies the requirements of the Redistricting Act.
Everybody around the state Capitol seems to have a favorite example. There’s the state House district in Northern New Mexico that is split in two by a mountain range and wilderness. You couldn’t drive across it if you tried. Then there’s the state Senate district that stretches some 180 miles from Santa Fe to Ruidoso. When it comes to political districts that have been precisely if nonsensically contorted, the New Mexico Legislature has got some real doozies.
Discouraged by seemingly endless court battles, gerrymandering opponents in some states are shifting their strategy two years before the 2020 census sparks another round of redistricting for legislative seats. Voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah will decide in November whether to have independent commissioners, rather than state lawmakers, draw congressional maps and the lines for state legislative seats. Except for Colorado, where lawmakers added the ballot measure, activists got these initiatives on the ballot by gathering signatures. And earlier this year, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that requires bipartisan support for new lines, though the power to draw them returns to the majority party if several redistricting attempts fail. The new system goes into effect in 2021.
A stripped down proposal that seeks to take partisanship and politics out of the redistricting process, as much as possible, passed its first test. The proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Carl Trujillo cleared the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on a unanimous vote on Wednesday. The committee heard the bill for a second time, but in a very different form. Last week, members of the committee felt that the language was too detailed for the constitution. They instead preferred that specifics be left for “enabling legislation” that is in statute and not in the constitution.
A proposed constitutional amendment on creating an independent redistricting commission had support but consensus that more work is needed in the House, Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Monday. The committee is the first stop on the way for constitutional amendments that originate in the House. Constitutional amendments go to the voters for approval if they clear both the House and Senate; the governor does not get a say in them. Most of the discussion in the committee came on a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, that would create an independent redistricting commission and take the process out of the hands of the Legislature. Trujillo echoed something that President Barack Obama said during the State of the State, “Politicians shouldn’t choose their voters, that voters should choose their politicians.”
A piece of legislation that would put the decennial redistricting in New Mexico in the hands of an independent redistricting commission instead of the state legislature and governor failed in a Senate committee. “This is big,” Sen. Bill O’Neill said in reference to the changes the legislation would make. “This is huge. This is seismic.” The Senate Rules Committee voted overwhelmingly to table the bill, but not all because they disagreed with the bill itself or the sentiments the sponsor said brought him to introduce the legislation.