Nebraska Lawmakers Launch Special Redistricting Session

Nebraska lawmakers launched a special session on Monday to redraw the state’s political boundaries, with one proposal that would add a 50th state senator to the Legislature to try to keep rural Nebraska from losing a seat. Sen. Mark Kolterman, of Seward, proposed the measure along with two other rural senators. The bill would expand the Legislature from its current 49 members to 50, as allowed under the Nebraska Constitution. Adding a senator would reduce the ideal number of residents per legislative district, making it easier for lawmakers to preserve rural districts that lost population over the last decade while still adding a district to fast-growing suburban Omaha.

The bill’s prospects are unclear, and some lawmakers questioned whether they could legally consider it in a special session that’s strictly limited to redistricting issues. Lawmakers have asked Nebraska’s attorney general to offer a legal opinion. Even so, rural senators said they planned to press the issue as a way to ease pressure on senators by reducing the average number of residents per district. The measure was cosponsored by Sens. Matt Williams, of Gothenburg, and John Stinner, of Gering. “I want to help protect the rural senators of the state,” said Kolterman, whose district could be merged with another rural district under one of the proposed plans. “We are still in a rural state. Agriculture drives the economy. Agriculture is the backbone of this state.”

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers said lawmakers could start first-round debate on redistricting bills as early as Friday. Members of the Redistricting Committee have scheduled public hearings Tuesday in Grand Island, Wednesday in Lincoln and Thursday in Omaha. The two-week special session could easily turn contentious as Republicans and Democrats work on new political districts in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. In addition to legislative districts, lawmakers must also approve new boundaries for Nebraska’s three congressional districts, the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the courts, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and the State Board of Education.

Republicans hold a majority but don’t have enough votes to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster, as they did during the last redistricting in 2011. That’s likely to force lawmakers into some sort of compromise.