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SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the Better Boundaries initiative passed by voters in 2018 said Friday lawmakers appear ready to undo the new independent redistricting commission and other changes to the process of redrawing congressional, legislative and State School Board boundaries.
"This is the literal definition of the fox guarding the henhouse. If the Utah Legislature eliminates the core principles of gerrymandering reform, they are missing the point," said Jeff Wright, Better Boundaries GOP co-chairman, calling it critical that lawmakers "follow the same ground rules as were decided statewide in 2018."
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, made it clear repeal is an option but said legislative leaders "haven't completely decided on a course of action yet. So we will see. We have to run a bill to fix the constitutional issues. We'd love to have a willing partner, but it sounds like we may not."
Wilson said lawmakers have been working with Better Boundaries for a year to deal with concerns including what he termed conflicts between the legislative branch of government, which would still have the final say on the boundaries drawn after the once-every-decade census, and the new commission that would be advisory.
"I wouldn't say necessarily that it's going to be down, but we're going to have to wade in and fix the legal and constitutional concerns. Whether it's tweaking it, which is what we've been talking about with them, or making larger changes, I think will be determined."
He suggested Better Boundaries may be trying to create more legal issues surrounding the initiative.
Lawmakers have already undone two of the three other initiatives passed by voters in the last general election, one legalizing medical marijuana and another accepting the full Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act. All appeared on the ballot as propositions.
"We don't want to send a message that we don't understand and hear what people are saying when they vote for those, but I think there also has to be an appreciation that we've got concerns about creating a lot of taxpayer liability and concerns related to the way that language was specifically written," the speaker said.
He said the yet-to-be-released bill could remove some of the contentious areas in the initiative, but "there are other options, too, which is along the lines of full repeal, but I'd love to find common ground if we can, but we're not in a place where we're willing to do something we think is irresponsible."
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, executive director of Protect Better Boundaries, said "it now appears the Legislature is dead set on repeal, as they have been unwilling to accept any compromise that preserves Prop. 4's ban on partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering."
We don't want to send a message that we don't understand and hear what people are saying when they vote for those, but I think there also has to be an appreciation that we've got concerns about creating a lot of taxpayer liability and concerns related to the way that language was specifically written.
–House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville
Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said legislative leaders "are insisting that the law must be changed so that the independent redistricting commission is permitted to recommend gerrymandered maps to the Legislature."
Gerrymandering is a term used to describe redrawing the districts of elected officials to favor incumbents as well as the political party in power. The intent of the independent redistricting commission is to put political pressure on lawmakers to consider maps put together outside the partisan process.