Roundhouse bracing for debate on redistricting - Albuquerque Journal

Roundhouse bracing for debate on redistricting

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislators are set to meet Monday for a special session that will help set New Mexico’s political landscape for the next decade.

Armed with new census data, state lawmakers will draft new district maps for the congressional delegation, legislative seats and the Public Education Commission.

The once-a-decade task is aimed at balancing the population among compact, contiguous districts while protecting communities of interest and minority voting rights.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead:

When will redistricting happen?

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called legislators to the Capitol for a special session beginning noon Monday. The agenda includes redistricting and allocating federal stimulus funds.

The session is expected to last about two weeks, though the 2011 redistricting session lasted almost three weeks. By law, special sessions cannot last longer than 30 days.

Lawmakers may be eager to finish before Christmas and to take a break before their regular 30-day session starts Jan. 18.

Who makes the final decision?

As with other legislation, both chambers of the Legislature must approve an identical bill to send to the governor, who has veto power. Each map is expected to be its own bill.

Any redistricting plan that becomes law can be challenged in court.

What’s at stake?

Lawmakers are charged with drawing new district boundaries for Congress, both state legislative chambers, and the Public Education Commission.

National attention will be focused on changes to the 2nd Congressional District – a seat that’s flipped back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats in the last few election cycles.

It’s now held by Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo and covers the southern half of the state. Growth in southeastern New Mexico, among other changes, will require some adjustments to the district.

How will population trends affect the maps?

Fast-growing areas over the last 10 years include Albuquerque’s West Side, Rio Rancho and the oil patch in southeastern New Mexico.

By raw numbers, the biggest gainers in population over the decade were Sandoval, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Doña Ana, Lea and Eddy counties, according to an analysis by Research & Polling Inc., the state’s redistricting contractor.

Rural counties generally saw their populations erode. The biggest loser of total population was San Juan County in the Four Corners area.

Overall, the state grew at its slowest rate since statehood in 1912.

The population climbed to about 2.1 million people in the 2020 census, a 2.8% increase over the last 10 years for a net gain of 58,000 people.

What role will the Citizen Redistricting Committee play?

For the first time, New Mexico established a citizen committee – with members appointed by the State Ethics Commission or legislative leaders – to hold hearings throughout the state and develop recommendations.

But its proposals aren’t binding.

The committee sent three options to the Legislature for each redistricting task – Congress, state House, state Senate and the Public Education Commission.

Lawmakers are free to pick one of the recommended options, or they can revise them – even start over entirely.

The ruins of a home stand along San Juan County Road 7950 in November. The loss of population in rural areas is one of the challenges facing New Mexico legislators as they draw new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts.(Eddie Moore/Journal)

Do the committee-recommended maps favor a political party?

The redistricting committee was prohibited by law from using partisan data in crafting the maps and directed to give less weight to where incumbents live.

David Cottrell, a University of Georgia professor hired to evaluate the maps, said he found “little evidence to suggest that the maps are unexpectedly unfair.”

He reported that, based on voting patterns in statewide elections from 2012 to 2020, the maps can be expected to produce:

• 44 to 47 Democrats in the state House, compared to 45 now.

• 27 or 28 Democrats in the state Senate, compared to 27 now.

• Two or three Democrats in the U.S. House, compared to two now.

The margins for future elections might be higher than that. New Mexico’s electorate has turned increasingly blue in recent years compared to the longer time period studied by Cottrell.

Traffic moves along Interstate 40 as it crosses the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. The city’s growing West Side helped make Bernalillo County one of the biggest gainers in total population over the last 10 years — a trend that will be a factor in redistricting.(Roberto E. Rosales/Journal.)

Are legislators at risk of sharing a district with another incumbent?

The redistricting plans recommended by the committee offer a peek at some of the tough choices facing the Legislature.

Six lawmakers were paired in every suggested plan – Democratic Sens. Katy Duhigg and Bill O’Neill of Albuquerque, Republican Sens. William Burt and Ron Griggs of Alamogordo, and Democratic Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil and Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque.

Hochman-Vigil and Rehm, for example, live just three miles apart.

Any pairing of lawmakers would require lawmakers to run against each other or move to a new district to keep their seat in the Legislature.

Minimizing pairings is likely to be a priority of lawmakers.

Isn’t there controversy already?

A congressional map designed by the left-leaning Center for Civic Policy generated intense debate during Citizen Redistricting Committee hearings, and it was one of the recommendations endorsed by the committee and sent to the Legislature.

The “Peoples Map,” as supporters call it, was intended to establish a more strongly Hispanic congressional district for southern New Mexico.

It triggered both vocal support and accusations of gerrymandering.

The proposal would split the conservative stronghold of southeastern New Mexico into all three districts, not unified as they are now in the 2nd Congressional District.

Parts of Hobbs in the oil patch, for example, would share the northern-based district that includes Santa Fe; part of the South Valley and West Side of Albuquerque would be linked with Carlsbad; and the rest of Albuquerque would share a district with Roswell.

The net effect politically, according to analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com, would be a 2nd Congressional District more friendly to Democrats.

The district is now about 14 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, and the Peoples Map would make the district lean 1 point toward Democrats.

Will Democrats draw maps to favor their political interests?

For the first time in 30 years, Democrats control the Governor’s Office and both chambers of the Legislature during a redistricting year.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf faced criticism earlier this year after he slammed the idea of turning map-making over to an independent commission. A closely divided state House, he said, would undermine the push for progressive priorities.

But Egolf also has pledged to support fair maps, and he ultimately helped pass legislation creating the citizens committee.

How can the public participate?

The state Capitol will be open to members of the public who show proof that they’re vaccinated against COVID-19. Firearms are prohibited.

Lawmakers typically accept public testimony during committee hearings, and most proposals go through more than one committee.

In-person testimony will be an option for people inside the Capitol, and lawmakers also plan to include a virtual component for online testimony by Zoom. How much public comment to take is at the discretion of the committee chairperson.

The proposals for Congress and the state Senate are expected to start in Senate committees, and the proposed maps for the state House and Public Education Commission are likely to start in House committees.

Visit nmlegis.gov and click on “What’s Happening” for meeting agendas and schedules. Click “Webcast” to watch live video.

The redistricting committee’s work is available at nmredistricting.org.

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