Our Views: Walker should call for public hearings on redistricting reform

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

When Gov. Scott Walker gives his fourth annual State of the State address Wednesday night, you’re sure to hear a lot about tax cuts in light of that $911 million budget surplus.

Here’s something you’re unlikely to hear: Walker calling on Republican leaders to hold hearings on legislation to reform the redistricting process.

That’s too bad.

After new census figures emerge every 10 years, the state tweaks legislative boundaries. In 2011, Republicans in power made a jigsaw puzzle out of the state. Instead of following municipal boundaries, the GOP diced things so more Republican voters wound up in competitive districts and more Democratic voters wound up in districts where Democrats had strong support anyway.

Democrats, of course, did the same thing when they held power and, like Republicans now, balked at reform.

Senate Bill 163 and Assembly Bill 185 would make redistricting in Wisconsin similar to Iowa’s model process. These bills would let the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau draw compact, contiguous and “strictly nonpartisan” maps that give strong consideration to municipal and county boundaries. Lawmakers would still approve the maps or return them to the research bureau for more work.

Some observers might fear that partisans could still skew the process because the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization appoints the reference bureau’s chief, who hires bureau staffers. Six Republicans and only four Democrats now make up that committee. Yet the bureau has had just six chiefs in 100 years. Republicans and Democrats respect the current chief, Stephen Miller, who has served since 1998, and his staff. Partisanship is not what the bureau is about.

Passing this reform is the best thing lawmakers could do to assure democracy and good government in Wisconsin. After all, the 2011 redistricting gave lawyers $2 million in tax dollars to secretly analyze election trends and rig districts in favor of Republicans. As a result, not one of Wisconsin’s congressional races was competitive in 2012, and few legislative races were well contested. That’s no surprise, and when elections are foregone conclusions, they discourage voters.

Gov. Walker has hinted he’s open to hearings on the reform bills. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial board that this is a good time to discuss reform, before the next census draws near. He told the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial board he would probably support an Iowa-type process if legislation reached his desk.

Instead of just using such statements to cover his backside when he’s running for re-election, Walker should take it one more step and call on legislators to hold the hearings.

Newspaper editorials across the state are urging such action this week. The State Journal perhaps said it best: Instead of politicians picking voters they want to represent, redistricting reform should give voters the power to choose their politicians.

Gov. Walker, take that next step Wednesday night.

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