Times Argus: With little controversy, House redraws legislative map

From the Times Argus website

By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau - Published: February 2, 2012

Rep. Cynthia Browning, photo Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, Times ArgusMONTPELIER — Legislative redistricting efforts generally result in session-long political fights between the major parties. But last-minute changes this week to the once-a-decade reapportionment bill have elicited a display of tripartisan unity in the Vermont House.

House lawmakers gave overwhelming preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that redraws the legislative map based on population figures from the last census. While the 138-4 vote reflects small pockets of dissent in regions most affected by the new map, lawmakers from all three major parties heralded the lopsided margin as a testament to cooperation.

At a news conference after the vote, flanked by leaders of the Republican and Progressive parties, Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith said Vermonters collectively should be proud of their elected representatives.

“The redistricting process in many states is the most political of political battles,” Smith said. “What was different about this process was (legislators) remembered who this was really about. It was about the people of the state of Vermont. It was not about politicians.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner said that while the new map isn’t perfect, it does largely meet the objectives of his Republican caucus.

“We really appreciate the effort of the majority leadership and speaker to allow us to reach a reasonable solution to the redistricting puzzle,” Turner said.

Things weren’t so smooth in 2002, the last time lawmakers went through the process. Partisan divides were so deep that the issue seemed at one point destined for the courts, and months of vicious debate over the bill delayed adjournment until mid-June.

“There were some hot-tempered moments,” Rep. Donna Sweaney, a South Burlington Democrat and chairwoman of the House Committee on Government Operations, said of the 2002 process. “My determination was we weren’t going to go back there again.”

This year’s legislation, though, appeared headed down a similar road as recently as last week, when Turner fired off a harshly worded missive to media outlets across Vermont.

His criticism was directed at a version of the redistricting map voted out of the Government Operations Committee, in which the “Democratic supermajority,” Turner alleged, was “using the reapportionment bill to further their party’s advantage in the House.”

That plan, which divided Castleton in half and put three longtime Republican legislators in the same two-seat district, was scrapped Tuesday and replaced with one more to Republicans’ liking.

“This process has seen the committee and legislative process at its best,” said Rep. Chris Pearson, leader of the Progressive Party in the House. “The committee had a very challenging task in front of it and met it with swiftness and an undeniable sense of fairness.”

But small changes in one part of the map have inevitable ripple effects elsewhere, and not everyone is pleased with their new districts.

The redistricting process — which started last fall when committee members began convening public hearings across the state — requires lawmakers to reconfigure legislative districts based on updated population figures.

The latest numbers dictate a district of 4,172 Vermonters for each of the House’s 150 seats, though the actual district sizes can deviate from the number by as much as 10 percent.

Population growth in Burlington required lawmakers to boost its representation from nine to 10; census losses in Rutland and Windsor counties, according to Sweaney, meant the new district in Burlington would be made up for by subtracting one there.

“To say this was hard is an understatement,” Sweaney said. “We finally decided on a solution that would include both Rutland and Windsor counties.”

The new map melds two districts into one, forcing two incumbents — Rep. Dennis Devereaux, a Mount Holly Republican, and Rep. Eldred French, a Democrat from Shrewsbury — to run against each other in November.

A spreadsheet detailing specific changes to each of the state’s 150 districts will be available online next week. Visit www.vtpressbureau.com soon for the link.

Devereaux and French took their fate in stride, each voting in favor of the new map despite being the sacrificial lambs.

“My ‘yes’ vote reflects the reality that this is not about me,” French said on the floor of the House. “It is about the citizens’ opportunity to fairly vote. The system works, and the manner in which it was conducted should make Vermonters proud.”

Two of the four “no” votes came from Rep. Cynthia Browning, of Arlington, and Rep. Alice Miller, of Shaftsbury. The two Democrats would see their single-seat districts merged into a larger two-seat district whose towns’ interests, the women argued, aren’t unified enough to warrant inclusion in a single voting district.

Browning wrote a failed amendment to restore the one-seat districts; Miller plans to do the same before the final House vote today.

Waterbury Democrats Tom Stevens and Rebecca Ellis cast the other “no” votes, citing concerns over the removal of Duxbury from their two-seat district.

The Senate has begun work on its redistricting bill. Sen. Jeannette White, a Windham County Democrat, said she’s hoping for a similarly smooth process there.

peter.hirschfeld@timesargus.com

peter.hirschfeld@rutlandherald.com

printed with permission from the author