The bi-partisan citizen commission charged with re-evaluating Montana’s political boundaries was making its decisions Friday.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission is voting on new maps of Montana’s House and Senate Districts. Compromise has been hard to come-by between the Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Many of the ultimate decisions are coming down to the board’s non-partisan chair.
The commission of non-elected citizens has been working together for the last three years–holding listening sessions around the state and looking to build district maps they say truly reflects Montana. Not surprisingly, the two Republican Commissioners prefer different maps than the two Democrats. And when it comes down to consolidating those maps into 100 House Districts, then splitting those to 50 Senate Districts, there have been plenty of hang-ups. They have been meeting all this week in the Capital Building trying to find solutions, and they are happening.
“Well, it’s starting to come together,” said the board’s chair, former Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier.
He’s supposed to be acting as a neutral arbiter between the commissioners, casting the deciding vote in the many impasses. Regnier says the new map will look pretty different than what voters have been using for the last decade.
“We’ve had some pretty dramatic changes in population since the last census,” Regnier said. Parts of Eastern Montana have lost substantial population. Gallatin, Flathead, and Missoula counties have all gained inhabitants.
The commission took multiple breaks through this final day of voting.
During the breaks, commissioners would chat with Regnier, or would try to broker last minute deals with each other.
Which is just how I found Republican Commissioner Jon Bennion and Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson, negotiating on district lines outside the meeting room.
“As the Legislature,” Lamson said. “There’s always a lot of give and take in the halls.”
Chairman Jim Regnier says geographically the map looks more like that suggested by Republicans, with many alterations. Republican Commissioner Bennion says you can’t make everyone happy in these decisions—even Legislators in your own party.
“Sometimes you have to tell your friends that their seat might be going away. It may be evaporating in the East and go West. That’s not an easy thing to do,” He said.
Perhaps the most controversial decision from the commission is reducing Havre from 2 House Districts to one district—on a 3-2 vote with Chair Regnier siding with Republicans.
There is also contentious debate over the shape of districts in the Missoula area, but no final information as of our deadline.
There has been much compromise, but Democratic Commissioner Lamson says the tie-break has been required often too.
“It’s gonna be a plan that is neither the Republicans plan or the Democrats plan, it’s gonna be the Regnier plan, it’s gonna be the chairman’s plan,” Lamson said.
After today’s votes, the map will go before the public for comment, then to the Legislature. The commission will then have the option to take those comments to make changes.
The new map goes into effect in 2014.