Congressional redistricting changes based on minority influence rejected

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May 23, 2011 - 7:00pm

Last minute attempts to make wholesale changes in the state's congressional redistricting plans fell short, and the governor vetoed horseracing and healthy food bills, as the Legislature moved closer to ending its session early.

Minority Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature took several last shots at changing the plan favored by the Republican majority. If the plan is ultimately challenged in court, one possible ground for a challenge is that it dilutes the influence of minorities in the Omaha-area second congressional district.

The plan puts more Republicans into the district, by incorporating the suburbs and rural areas of western Sarpy County into the Second District. At the same time it switches Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base, with relatively more minorities and Democrats, to the First District.

Omaha Senator Brenda Council, a Democrat, said that would dilute the influence of minorities, who in 2008 helped swing the Second District's electoral vote to Barack Obama.

"Minority voters in CD2 voted and turned out at unprecedented levels," Council said, "and not only as a result of their vote were they able to have an electoral vote cast for someone that they believed represented their interests and concerns as a minority community, they actually were able to affect the election of a minority presidential candidate."

Omaha Senator Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican, said there was a flaw in the Democrat's legal argument. "Here's the problem people," Lautenbaugh declared. "Under the law, under the case law, you don't aggregate all minority populations to get to a minority-influence district. And that is what the proponents of this amendment
are doing."

In other words, Lautenbaugh said, you don't add together African Americans and Hispanics and Asians and other minority groups to get to the roughly 30 percent level that the Supreme Court has said constitutes a "minority-influence" district.

And Kearney Senator Galen Hadley said that even if minority groups were aggregated, their total in the Second District would still be about 25 and a half percent in the Republican-favored redistricting plan, compared to 27 percent in the Democratic alternative.

The amendment favored by Democrats was then voted down, 31-17. Another effort by Wilber Senator Russ Karpicek to return Saline County to the First District, while keeping Platte and Polk in the third, was turned back 27-21. The only amendment that succeeded involved a sliver of Gage County that was moved into the Third District with the rest of that county, after it was said so few people lived there that people could tell how they voted.

The tradeoff was to split the town of Emerson, in Dixon County, between the First and Third Districts. Senator Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins noted that Emerson is already split between three counties, and now will be in two legislative and two congressional districts.

On the veto front, Governor Dave Heineman sent two bills back to the Legislature with his objections. One would allow continued betting on horses in Lancaster County even after the existing racetrack at the former state fairgrounds goes out of business next year. The governor said the Attorney General thinks that would be unconstitutional.

He also vetoed a bill authorizing 150 thousand dollars each of the next two years to increase access to healthy foods in so-called "food deserts." Heineman said he supports that goal, but the bill duplicates other efforts. The sponsors of both bills say they'll attempt to override the vetoes.

Meanwhile, Speaker Mike Flood says the Legislature is on track to wrap up its 2012 session on Thursday - three legislative days, but almost two calendar weeks earlier than originally scheduled.

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