Legislative Committee Kicks Off Redistricting Work

The Nebraska State Capitol building is seen in Lincoln on Jan. 8, 2020. (AP)
Grant Schulte
The Associated Press

A Nebraska legislative committee kicked off its effort to redraw the state’s political boundaries on Monday, showing early signs of an urban-rural divide as some lawmakers questioned whether rural population declines were as severe as census numbers show.

Data presented to the committee confirmed what lawmakers already knew: that legislative districts in rural, western Nebraska all lost residents, while suburban Omaha and Lincoln posted big gains. One district in the remote Nebraska Panhandle lost 15.5% of its population from 2010 to 2020, while a fast-developing Omaha-area district gained 31.1% in that time.

The process is expected to be heavily partisan, with Republicans in the ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature striving to maintain GOP dominance and Democrats looking for any edge they can find.

At stake is the shape of the state’s legislative and congressional districts, as well as less controversial districts for Nebraska’s courts, the state Public Service Commission, the State Board of Education and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

State Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer, said he was concerned that rural areas may have been undercounted during the once-a-decade head count because some residents didn’t respond to the Census Bureau’s requests for information.

“It sounds to me like we’re left with a little bit of a question mark,” said Briese, a Republican.

Staff members for the Legislative Research Office, which is helping lawmakers with redrawing the lines, said the numbers gleaned from the census are generally accurate, and the bureau uses an algorithm to compensate for those who don’t respond.

Urban senators said the underreporting concerns could just as easily apply to some of their densely populated neighborhoods.

“There’s going to be people in every legislative district that don’t answer their door,” Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat from Omaha.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, said lawmakers ought to “start with a baseline of trusting the data” as they redraw the boundaries. The process is likely to shift more political power to the Omaha and Lincoln areas.

On Friday, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts called the Legislature into a special session for redistricting that will start Sept. 13.  The process is usually completed earlier in the year, during the Legislature’s regular session, but the release of census data was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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