SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers and Better Boundaries organizers laid out a deal Thursday struck between the Legislature and backers of Proposition 4 — the citizen initiative proposing the creation of an independent redistricting commission that would recommend new boundaries following each census.
The compromise between the two groups will require the independent redistricting commission to adopt its own rules to ban partisan gerrymandering. The commission will still be able to draw maps creating proposed congressional, legislative and State School Board boundaries to be presented to the Legislature for its approval.
“I hope they come up with some great maps. I hope they come up with some maps that we can use and the Legislature can adopt,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
The compromise bill, SB200, was unveiled Thursday.
Discussion at Thursday’s news conference was largely centered around the compromise, with multiple lawmakers and representatives from Better Boundaries, the organization behind the initiative, saying the bill strikes a balance by preserving the spirit of Proposition 4 without overriding the Legislature’s constitutional responsibilities to oversee redistricting.
“Better Boundaries had a vision and a goal they wanted to accomplish,” said bill sponsor Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo. “The Legislature had a constitutional prerogative that we wanted to protect. How we came together is really what America is about.”
He said the independent redistricting commission as proposed in Proposition 4 will be funded, staffed and will give individuals the opportunity to have their work presented to the Legislature.
“We are at our best when we can sit down and we can come together and we can counsel together and find a solution,” Bramble said.
Utah lawmakers and Better Boundaries have been discussing Proposition 4 since around the time it narrowly passed in the 2018 election.
Talks appeared to break down last week when Better Boundaries issued a statement warning that lawmakers seemed poised to repeal the initiative over proposed changes seen as undoing what Rebecca Chavez-Houck, executive director for Better Boundaries and a former Democratic state representative, described as “Prop. 4’s ban on partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering.”
Chavez-Houck told reporters Thursday a lot of time, effort, and back-and-forth has been put into the deal, but the results are much more rigorous and accountable on the commission than anything she’d hoped for.
She praised the bill for protecting the core concept of Proposition 4 — creating a commission prohibited from favoring a political party or incumbent — and said its passage would add Utah to a handful of other states like Idaho, Arizona and Montana that already have some sort of independent redistricting commission in place.
Chavez-Houck encouraged the public to reach out to leadership if they are interested in serving on the commission and to weigh in on the public meeting process, as well as attend meetings where maps are presented to the Legislature.
“It is going to be contingent on the public to hold the commission accountable. We have given them the guidelines. We have given them the standards to which they need to account,” she said. “This is the people’s commission, and the public should hold it to account, but also be an active member in this process.”
Jeff Wright, co-chairman of Better Boundaries, described the compromise as a win for Utah citizens.
“To those who are skeptical, criticism is easy. Achievement is hard,” Wright said. “In the end we have moved public opinion, changed how we do redistricting, creating an independent commission that only a handful of other states have achieved, and partnered with the Utah Legislature in good faith to ensure a fair and equitable redistricting process.”
House Minority Whip Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, described the meetings as heated but civil.
“I’ll call it a goodwill compromise, because a week ago we had nothing. We ended negotiations. It was not a happy time. Then we came back together and this is the solution,” she said. “We’ve reached something that still honors the public’s desire to have an independent commission for redistricting.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters at a monthly news conference at PBS Utah that he did not play a big role in negotiations on the Proposition 4 compromise, but he believes Bramble’s bill will pass constitutional muster.
“Those who advocated for the boundary commission recognized that the initiative itself had some flaws in it. ... There were a couple of issues that were stumbling blocks,” Herbert said, also emphasizing the collaborative spirit in instituting a fix.
In regards to concerns the conservative majority will receive an advantage, Herbert said the Legislature will need to make sure minorities “are not frozen out” and that there is fairness in redistricting.