This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
A House committee on Monday unanimously approved a bill that would allow the state to prepare for the major task of redrawing legislative districts based on population data from the 2020 census.
Among other measures, House Bill 211, co-sponsored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives, creates a seven-member redistricting commission, lays out requirements for choosing those members, initiates a series of public meetings and gives the panel the responsibility of coming up with a number of options for redistricting. “By creating new rules and processes, this makes the process more engaging with the public,” said Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences and one of the sponsors of the legislation.
The bill, if signed into law, would allow the commission to adopt three to five district plans for four elected bodies — the state House and Senate, congressional districts, and the Public Education Commission.
The commission then would deliver those plans to the Legislature, which would act on redistricting during a special session later this year. The Legislature could select one plan without amendment and present it to the governor for approval.
If the Legislature does not select a district plan from any one set of plans, it will be required by law to select the plan the commission says best satisfies the requirements of the Redistricting Act.
Dow and other lawmakers supporting the bill said it is designed to ensure membership in the commission is as nonpartisan as possible.It allows the majority and minority leadership in the House and the Senate to appoint four of the seven commissioners. The State Ethics Commission appoints two commissioners — who must not be members of either the Democratic or Republican parties — and the chairperson, who must be a retired justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court or a retired judge of the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
The bill’s fiscal impact report spotlights one potential problem. The commission is to be appointed by April 1 and deliver plans to the Legislature by mid-October. But redistricting depends on U.S. census data, and those numbers are not expected to be released until the end of July. The report suggests pushing the deadline back to Nov. 30.
Earlier this month, Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff, whose company Research & Polling Inc. is compiling data for redistricting, told lawmakers they would likely have to wait until November or December to hold the special session because of the delay in census data.
He told lawmakers they should keep several factors in mind when redistricting — maintaining equal populations among all districts, prioritizing minority voting rights, respecting current boundaries, avoiding splitting up neighborhoods and making the districts compact and contiguous.
Democrats and Republicans on the House State Government, Indian and Veteran Affairs approved the measure Monday with little debate. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, asked the sponsors for support in drafting a House Joint Resolution — which does not require the approval of the governor and leaves it to voters to approve during a general election — to ensure the mandates of the bill become state statute and thus are not easily changed with new state leadership.
Dow and other sponsors said they were amenable to that idea. The bill next goes to the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, has introduced mirroring legislation, Senate Bill 199, which is set to be heard first in the Senate Rules Committee.
Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by the Legislature.