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Idaho Democrats walk out as redistricting plan advances

February 8, 2019
From left, Democratic Reps. Elaine Smith of Pocatello, John Gannon of Boise and Brooke Green of Boise walk out in protest from the House State Affairs Committee before a vote on a proposal to amend Idaho's Constitution to alter an independent commission that sets voting districts Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Three Democrats on a House panel considering a change to the Idaho Constitution involving redistricting walked out in protest on Friday at what they called a clear attempt at gerrymandering before the 10 Republicans voted unanimously to send the legislation to the full House.

A short time later, the Democratic House Minority Leader, Mat Erpelding, continued the protest by requiring the full text of three bills be read before debate could begin.

Democrats have said the redistricting legislation made public Wednesday followed by the hearing on Friday happened too fast to allow adequate public participation.

“If they want to speed up the process, I can slow down the process,” Erpelding said after the House adjourned.

Bill sponsors typically ask for unanimous consent to skip reading the full text of a bill, but anyone can object and require the clerk to read the entire bill. The time it takes to read bills can significantly slow business in the House. Erpelding said he planned to continue objecting the rest of the legislative session unless Republicans chose a different path on the redistricting legislation.

“They can bring everyone to the table and have a conversation about how to fix it, not ram it down people’s throats,” he said. “It’s an amendment specifically to allow them to gerrymander Idaho.”

Currently, districts for Congress and the state Legislature are drawn every 10 years by the six-member commission in Idaho answerable only to the courts. The majority and minority party leaders in each legislative chamber each select one person to serve on the commission; the state chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties also each select a commissioner. Commissioners cannot be government officials or lobbyists. At least two-thirds of the commissioners must approve a redistricting map.

The legislation put forward by Rep. Steve Harris, a Republican, calls for a seventh commissioner to be selected by the governor, lieutenant governor, state controller, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction. He said the change is needed after problems and lawsuits arose during the last redistricting, which finished in 2012. If the proposed legislation passes by a two-thirds majority in the GOP-dominated Senate and House, the plan would then go to the voters for approval.

Harris declined to be interviewed after the House State Affairs Committee he chairs and House adjourned, but did respond to an email from The Associated Press.

“I don’t know that a seventh member would reduce the number of lawsuits,” he said. “One can sue for just about anything. Hopefully, a smoother process will result in less contention, especially once the new process settles down.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican, said after the House adjourned there was emotion on both sides.

“Our process allows for if one person is mad and chooses to bring the process to a halt, they can do that,” he said. “Fine, the message has been sent, now let’s see what happens. We’ll go from there. I don’t know how this story ends.”

During the House State Affairs Committee meeting, John Gannon, a Democrat, tried to have the legislation held until next week to give people from eastern or northern Idaho time to get to Boise to testify, but the motion was defeated with a party-line vote. Rep. Brent Crane, a Republican, said the timeline for the legislation being made public met the necessary time requirement.

Rep. Heather Scott, also a Republican, said she had received hundreds of emails about the legislation and believed her constituents in northern Idaho had ample warning for the public hearing.

After more than an hour of testimony from Boise residents opposing the legislation, the committee prepared to vote, at which point the three Democrats prepared to exit.

“We need to leave because we don’t feel we can cast a vote at this point without having the people of Idaho involved in this process,” Gannon told the other committee members before walking out with Reps. Elaine Smith and Brook Greene.

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