New lines based on current districtsBy Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | October 07,2011
MONTPELIER — The House Government Operations Committee has elbowed aside a redistricting proposal that came from a seven-member panel of political appointees and will instead use the existing electoral map as its main starting point for reshuffling House districts.
Rep. Donna Sweaney, chairwoman of the committee, said the committee would still use the map created by the Legislative Apportionment Board this summer as a reference but would rely more on the existing electoral map as the committee alters the district lines in response to the most recent census and the population shifts it reveals.
Sweaney said her committee, which met at the Statehouse on Thursday, was more comfortable starting with the existing map.
“It’s something we know and have an understanding of,” she said.
Some legislators don’t like the Legislative Apportionment Board’s proposal because in some cases it divides existing districts in ways that group incumbent lawmakers into the same district, pitting them against one another in the next election.
Reapportionment, a process the Legislature goes through every decade in response to the U.S. Census, will be a major focus of the House Government Operations Committee, a Senate committee, and the Legislature as a whole in the next session.
And it will be a politically charged affair, lawmakers said.
“Nothing’s more political than reapportionment, because the most personal thing for members is their district, and if I’m a Republican, a Democrat, or a Progressive, I want to add to my body of representatives,” said Sweaney.
During the last reapportionment, in 2002, the issue delayed the Legislature’s adjournment and helped that year become what was described at the time as one of the most acrimonious in recent memory.
The dynamics will be different in the next session. In 2002, the House was controlled by Republicans while Democrats controlled the Senate.
Now Democrats control both chambers.
Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said the tension this year will likely be between regions of the state that face changes.
“The real challenge will be on Democratic leadership in both houses, basically resolving regional conflicts there might be,” Davis said.
The 2010 census shows Vermont’s population grew by 16,914 residents since 2000, according to the apportionment board’s report, a growth of 2.8 percent.
But the northwest quadrant of the state, including Chittenden and Franklin counties, grew by about 6 percent, said Davis, which means that area will gain seats. The population grew more slowly in the Northeast Kingdom and areas in the south, including Rutland County, he said.
The northwestern part of the state should gain a Senate seat and House seats, said Davis, but which region will lose seats is harder to predict.
“I think we know where the gain is going to be,” said Davis. “It’s less clear where the loss will be.”
Davis doesn’t think any political party is going to gain much power as a result of redistricting.
“I think the partisan impact in terms of House changes may be close to a wash,” said Davis.
That’s because the northwestern area of the state that grew the most includes both liberal and conservative areas, he said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, the Assistant Majority Leader, said the political parties shouldn’t attempt to rely on redistricting as a chance to pick up seats. He said he was elected on the heels of the last reapportionment, along with other House Democrats, even though Vermont had a Republican-controlled House at the time.
“Any party that thinks drawing lines is the solution to finding a bigger caucus, it isn’t going to work,” Jewett said.
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