LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The top leader of Nebraska's Legislature warned Tuesday that he will end the special session convened to draw new congressional and legislative maps if lawmakers fail to advance both measures by Saturday, a move that would likely delay the state's May 2022 primary election.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers said he'd prefer to approve all of the redistricting maps in the current special session, but the Republican senator added that he's not going to continue if lawmakers keep failing to reach an agreement.
Lawmakers remained at an impasse on Tuesday over how to redraw Nebraska's congressional and legislative maps to adjust for population losses in rural areas and gains around Omaha and Lincoln.
Republicans hold a majority in the one-house, nonpartisan Legislature, but don't have enough votes to overcome a filibuster led by Democrats and a few moderate Republicans, who argue that the maps are drawn to make it harder for them to win. Both measures have stalled in recent days, forcing lawmakers to start the process again.
Hilgers said he doesn't want to waste the time of senators or the public if no one can compromise. The situation is unprecedented, he said, given the late release of population data from the U.S. Census Bureau because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that lawmakers have less time to reach a deal on district maps than they would in a regular session.
“I certainly want to get it done now, but I also want to get it right,” Hilgers said. “If we have one delayed election to get these right for the next ten years, then that's a price I'm willing to pay.”
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen said delaying the once-a-decade ritual would force county election officials to wait longer before they could start drawing precinct-level maps to fit within the new political boundaries. Aspiring candidates who want to run for office would encounter delays as well, because the window for them to file would get pushed back beyond its Jan. 5 opening.
Evnen, a Republican, said it would be “far better” for the state if lawmakers “completed their work this week.”
Lawmakers did give first-round approval Tuesday to new district maps for Nebraska's Supreme Court justices and members of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. But Hilgers said he'll still end the session unless all of the maps pending before lawmakers have advanced through a first-round vote on Saturday.
Ending the special session without any new maps would delay the decision until the 2022 session, which starts in January. Hilgers said it would “almost certainly” delay the state's May primary election for U.S. House, legislative and local races. The next presidential and U.S. Senate primaries won't be until 2024.
The Nebraska Supreme Court and Public Service Commission maps advanced fairly easily on Tuesday, although some rural senators raised concerns about the growing physical size of rural districts. They said they were particularly worried about the five-member commission, which regulates industries including broadband — a major priority in remote areas with poor service.
“I am concerned that without fair representation on the Public Service Commission across the state, we will continue to lose out on opportunities to grow Nebraska," said Sen. Lynne Walz, of Fremont.
Former Speaker Mike Flood said some rural commission members may have “the hardest job in Nebraska politics,” because they represent the interests of such a huge area.
Under the maps that advanced on Tuesday, two members would represent 82 of Nebraska's 93 counties, while the remaining three would cover the other 11, including the Omaha and Lincoln areas. Flood said he'd like to see the commission expanded, from five members to seven.
For the state Supreme Court, lawmakers approved a map that would give one justice more than half of the state. Six of the court's seven justices represent specific areas of the state, while the court's chief justice serves as an at-large member.
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