One of the Washington State Redistricting Commission members who voted to approve the state’s new political maps on New Year’s Day says the process that began in February was too long and too costly.
“I think a tuneup and an overhaul would be in line,’’ Republican commissioner Tom Huff of Gig Harbor said Tuesday, suggesting a constitutional amendment is in order to pare costs by as much as $1 million.
State voters approved the redistricting commission process in a 1983 constitutional amendment that took the job out of the hands of lawmakers. Huff said it’s time to take into account the huge technological advances that allow data to be collected, analyzed and mapped quickly. He proposes setting a tighter schedule with earlier deadlines that would avoid the winter holidays.
Democratic commissioners Dean Foster of Olympia and Tim Ceis of Seattle said the current system worked well, making its deadline to produce a bipartisan plan for the third time since 1992. They noted there was unprecedented public comment, which was accepted live from people who watched the proceedings online or on TVW.
“This is a bipartisan process, and it is always a challenge dealing with competing objectives,” Ceis and Foster said in a joint statement. “But we have reached a fair and equitable resolution that will serve the citizens of Washington well.”
In a historic move, the commission created the state’s first congressional district with a majority of people of color. That district, the new 9th, leaves Thurston County and will run from northeast Tacoma to southeast Seattle and Bellevue.
The commission also created the first legislative district – the 15th in east Yakima County – with a Latino majority.
Republican Slade Gorton of Bellevue called Washington’s redistricting process “the best in the country’’ – producing bipartisan results that are fairer than in states like Texas or Illinois where internal legislative battles lead to districts shaped like snakes.
The key difference: Washington requires a bipartisan vote, or at least three of four partisan commissioners, to approve a plan and send to the Legislature. The Legislature has limited authority to change it.
Gorton’s one complaint is that Washington’s congressional districts are numbered in a scattershot way around the state. He’d like to start with District 1 along the ocean coast and work eastward – putting No. 10 in the Spokane area.
Activist John Milem of Vancouver, who won praise from commissioners for his work to unearth discrepancies that they fixed in the final plan, also thinks reform is needed. Milem wants to see a process that doesn’t result in incumbent protection.
The new plan pushed no congressional incumbents into the same district, although a few legislative incumbents were moved. Overall, the plan gives Democrats an edge in five congressional districts and Republicans in four. The 1st district – which is reconfigured to run from east of Everett to Canada – is considered competitive.
Democrats retain their edge in the state House and Senate.
Anyone wanting to change the redistricting process faces a tough job. A constitutional amendment needs a two-thirds vote in the Legislature just to land on the statewide ballot.
Bonnie Bunning, executive director for the commission, said she agrees the process could be abbreviated. But Bunning was skeptical that changes can get political traction, given that redistricting happens once a decade and finished on time yet again.
The state likely won’t spend the entire $2.67 million budgeted to cover 18 months of the commission’s work.
Bunning said the commission spent about $250,000 less than budgeted in the first six months and is on track to save another $182,790 for the second six months – bringing total savings to about $433,000. The savings could grow if the commission wraps up work sooner than June 2012, Bunning said.
“We were very frugal,” Bunning said. “We used only surplus furniture. We borrowed equipment where we could and worked hard to get some good deals with our accommodations and the … rooms we rented (for meetings).’’
The commission sent its plan to the Legislature on Sunday, and the commission was to complete a few other details in a special meeting this morning. In the weeks and months ahead, the commission staff must complete work on data files and produce printed maps to distribute to the public.
State lawmakers can make only minor changes to the new maps, and only if they can summon a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog