Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Omaha World-Herald. Sept. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Redistricting is messy, but Nebraska legislators must find sensible compromise

Nebraska’s Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but over the years, it by no means has been immune from ugly warring over political redistricting. The Redistricting Committee plans to release proposed maps Friday and hold public hearings next week, setting up this year’s round of partisan sparring and maneuver.

Amid the spirited debate, we highlight some key observations for government officials and the public to keep in mind.

Adequate time for debate. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the Redistricting Committee, served the public interest by announcing that the committee will release the maps this week. It’s vital that Nebraskans have adequate time to study the proposals. Redistricting by definition means that some counties, communities or neighborhoods will be moved to a new district — in some cases even splitting individual neighborhoods. And attention always focuses intently on proposed changes in Nebraska’s three U.S. House districts. The release on Friday will allow four days before three days of public hearings begin.

Partisan skirmishing. Redistricting, here and in other states, is often a case of saying one thing but then doing another. That is, the Nebraska Legislature pledges that the map drawing won’t be done with regard to partisan political interests or particular individuals — only to see angry rhetorical brawls break out between Republican and Democratic partisans as soon as the maps come out. The pungent aroma of partisan scheming permeated the redistricting process a decade ago, and it’s highly doubtful that the process will remain odor-free this time around.

That’s especially the case this year in regard to the 2nd Congressional District, as some Republican stalwarts seem set to call for splitting Douglas County between two districts to help GOP electoral prospects. In the wake of the new census figures, the 2nd District must shrink by 47,000 people to equalize population among Nebraska’s three districts. Removing that many voters from the 2nd District while keeping Douglas County whole would make it difficult for the GOP to win either the House seat or the district’s presidential electoral vote.

But the division of Douglas County, merely to serve a political party’s narrow election interest, is blatantly opportunistic and deserves the Legislature’s rejection.

Fierce brawls are likely, too, over state legislative boundaries in western and north-central Douglas County, especially in districts currently held by Democrats. Linehan offered reassurance to her colleagues in May that her goal isn’t to “blow up” existing districts and start from scratch. On Friday, Nebraskans will see how closely map revisions follow that guidance.

Checks and balances. The best redistricting approach for Nebraska would have been an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw the lines, with the Legislature casting the deciding vote on all the maps. Under the current system, it will be no surprise to see the usual partisan skirmishing. But at the end of the day, what is the bottom-line public interest? In regard to the Legislature, the public interest is clear: Our state government must have adequate checks and balances — a key principle underscored by our nation’s founders — so that policy decisions receive robust scrutiny and debate.

A redistricting map that tilts all political advantages to favor a single party would short-circuit the check-and-balance possibility in Lincoln. Such a map would deserve to be killed through a filibuster.

Respect the census numbers. During a recent meeting of the Redistricting Committee, it was troubling to hear the argument that rural parts of the state were undercounted, so lawmakers should question the degree of rural depopulation under the census. No, the redistricting process must rely rigorously on the actual census data. Otherwise, the door will swing open to all sorts of uncertainty and attempts at manipulation.

Lawsuits sometimes prevail, killing partisan-focused redistricting maps. Debates over redistricting inevitably include claims that a map is so egregious, it justifies legal action to stop it. Sometimes that claim is just overheated rhetoric. But sometimes substantive lawsuits are filed and do win in court — as shown in a decades-long string of precedents from state and federal courts. In a recent case in North Carolina, a court threw out the redistricting maps for that state’s legislative districts, requiring lawmakers to draw up new maps, in short order, that would pass constitutional muster.

Court precedents show that redistricting maps raise constitutional concerns if the maps use racial demographics as a mere pretext to create districts favorable to a particular political party.

Work out sensible agreement. Redistricting is messy, but Nebraska state senators have an obligation to work through their partisan struggles and find agreement on reasonable, filibuster-proof maps. Gov. Pete Ricketts also has an obligation. He mustn’t veto a map just because it doesn’t meet all his political preferences. Otherwise, the wrangling at the State Capitol may push this special legislative session beyond the end-of-September deadline.

The watchword, as on so many other matters, must be sensible compromise.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Sept. 9, 2021.

Editorial: Health standards fight teaches wrong lesson

Months of rancorous debate over how Nebraska students learn about health doesn’t change the fact that they desperately do need to learn about health.

Unfortunately, the outcry over the State Board of Education’s first proposal has overshadowed the need for all children to have a trusted, qualified and willing adult teach our state’s youth what they must know as they grow up. For the child of every involved parent who testified for or against the plan, another student lacks the household structure or support to obtain that education at home – meaning school is the only choice.

Accordingly, real losers in this situation are Nebraska’s students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Students need age-appropriate guidelines to learn about health, and the stated intent of these optional standards – before the effort was politicized to the point of no return -- was protecting Nebraska children from sexual abuse and bullying.

That’s a goal that all Nebraska parents should want to see happen. Instead, parents left and right accused the committee that wrote the draft standards of grooming children.

To be fair, members of the State Board of Education were in a difficult situation.

If they voted to institute health standards – which, again, were optional for any district and required an affirmative opt-in from a school board – they would have faced the angry backlash that derailed the effort to create the first set of such guidelines and rendered them illegitimate in the eyes of opponents.

However, by electing not to pursue a third revision after a more reasonable second draft was met with complaints that it simultaneously still went too far and not far enough, the board sent the message that opponents’ unwillingness to compromise will win the day.

It’s not an inspiring message to our children, either, who are now watching parents angrily threaten to recall elected officials over matters of policy and safety – such as rules on masks in schools – rather than diplomatically work to solve a disagreement.

Lincoln Public Schools is no stranger to this, either, given the recent dust-up about mailers sent to some households regarding opting out of “comprehensive sex education” and allowing them to exempt them from classes led by “any staff or volunteer from Planned Parenthood.”

What’s missing from those documents is the fact that the district’s sex education standards must follow the curriculum the district – not Planned Parenthood – approved more than a decade ago. Also, LPS had no plans to implement the first draft of the state standards.

Giving parents information is great. Misinformation, however, undermines our ability to have an informed, civil discussion for the betterment of all. And misinformation – some of it willful – fueled the wave that continues to crash again and again at meetings of school boards and State Board of Education.

The firestorm of the last several months only underscores Nebraska’s need to improve what and how it teaches children about health – and civility in civics.

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North Platte Telegraph. Sept 12, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t look west again to redraw Unicam maps

Frankly, if “greater Nebraska” must give up yet another Unicameral seat to Omaha and Lincoln, it’s time for our rural neighbors farther east to take a turn.

Two competing maps — one that again erases a western legislative district, and a second that doesn’t — have been put before Nebraskans for public comment as a special redistricting session opens Monday.

A pair of alternative maps for Nebraska’s three U.S. House districts also will be presented at public hearings Tuesday in Grand Island, Wednesday in Lincoln and Thursday in Omaha.

We won’t dwell on those here because, honestly, neither would change anything for us here in the heart of the 3rd District.

The legislative maps are another matter.

We’re facing the same problem we’ve faced repeatedly since the Great Depression: The Omaha and Lincoln areas gained population in the 2020 census, while most of the other 90 counties shrank.

For the third time since 1990, explosive metro growth and the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling of 1962 will force senators to take a rural district and move it into the Omaha area.

(That 1962 ruling, by the way, is precisely why greater Nebraska would gain nothing by returning to a two-house Legislature. The second house also would have to be represented by population. We’d be paying for more lawmakers and staff and get two chambers dominated by Omaha and Lincoln, not just one.)

It’s inevitable but unfortunate that the competing maps are being called “Republican” and “Democratic” maps because of the party affiliations among members of the special Redistricting Committee who back them.

We in western Nebraska, no matter whether we prefer elephants or donkeys — or neither — must set that aside and stand up to preserve our voice in Lincoln.

The “Republican” map — for once! — would move a mostly rural district already 200 miles east of North Platte. That’s District 24, currently containing Seward, York and Polk counties west and northwest of Lincoln.

The “Democratic” map, by contrast, would carve up District 44 — long centered in southwest Nebraska — and move that district into the Omaha area.

Yes, one must start somewhere in crafting a final map. But why do some easterners always start in the west?

Western Nebraskans, be they Democrats or Republicans, will lose equally if our region loses a third legislative district in 30 years.

District 39, once represented by the late Unicameral Speaker and U.S. Rep. Bill Barrett of Lexington, was the first shifted from our area. Next to go east was District 49, once in the northern Panhandle.

Senators have to consider many factors, some legal and others practical, in drawing fair and equitable district maps. We call attention to one factor ignored in our case in the so-called “Democratic” map: geography.

No matter which map is adopted, North Platte Sen. Mike Groene’s successor will have to do more driving. District 42, long confined to Lincoln County, no longer has enough people to be a one-county district.

But let’s face it: Most lawmakers east of Grand Island can cross their districts in minutes to an hour. It can take several hours for their western counterparts, especially in the Sandhills’ vast District 43.

It’d be just as hard for a western Democratic senator, should one be elected, to stay in touch with voters. Not to mention vice versa.

Of course, out here we’re used to considering 80 to 100 miles a “short drive.” We have no choice.

But why shouldn’t a few lawmakers with rural areas, even on the edge of Omaha and Lincoln, have to drive farther for once?

Both would-be Unicam maps will be introduced as legislative bills, but neither is final. Either could be altered in the special Redistricting Committee or on the floor.

The nearest public hearing on redistricting will be at 1:30 p.m. CT Tuesday at Central Community College in Grand Island. Other hearings will be held Wednesday in the State Capitol and Thursday in Omaha’s Scott Conference Center.

We urge you to voice your support for the so-called “Republican” Unicameral map, but not — repeat, not — because it’s called that.

It’s a matter of fairness for all western Nebraska.

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