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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Redrawing of House districts gets started

CONCORD – A special House committee began the byzantine process Monday of redrawing maps to elect its 400 members, and giving all towns that are big enough their own legislator.

Voters approved an amendment in 2006 to restore the post-Colonial tradition of giving towns with populations of at least 3,000 one House member.

“This means that 85 percent of communities are going to have their own representative. It’s a spectacular change,” said state Rep. Paul Mirski, R-Enfield, who chairs the panel.

In recent decades, the Republican-led Legislature has grouped towns together to share leftover districts that robbed many communities of their legislators.

The state’s 1.3 million population equals a lawmaker for about 3,250 people.

Currently, Hudson, Litchfield and Pelham together vote every two years to elect 13 House members.

But by the numbers, Hudson is entitled to seven of its own, Litchfield should have two and Pelham should get four.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, proposed a plan using 2009 census figures that had Hudson and Litchfield sharing another member.

The Vaillancourt plan would also for the first time in decades give Milford (4), Amherst (3), Hollis (2) and Brookline (1) their own lawmakers rather than having them share with neighboring communities.

“What you do here will have significant impact on governance throughout New Hampshire,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has studied New Hampshire redistricting going back two centuries. “As many towns, if not every town, have their own member in the assembly. That was the tradition, and the same applies today.”

Mirski said the main goal is to avoid the constitutional crisis that greeted lawmakers a decade ago. That’s when the GOP-led Legislature and then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, could not agree on House or state Senate maps.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court hired a South Carolina demographer that designed maps that the justices then imposed on the Legislature.

Two years later, then-Gov. Craig Benson, a Republican, signed changes to two dozen House districts. The court reluctantly accepted those alterations in a decision that still reinforced the legal view that this process should take place once every 10 years.

“I sure would not like to go through this whole business of having the Supreme Court take over things again,” Mirski said.

He said the committee will explore crafting the plans as a concurrent resolution. The governor has no role in that process, unlike with a regular bill as has usually been the case.

Shaheen vetoed the 2000 redistricting plans submitted as bills.

If there’s legislation, Lynch is widely seen as the backstop to block any maps that are too overly GOP-centric.

Mirski said he’s read the constitution and believes it defines redistricting as a purely legislative function.

Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, a committee member and former state prosecutor, agreed.

“Redistricting of the body is delegated to ourselves,” Hess said.

Vaillancourt said he questions that legal view since in every other state, the governor appears to play a part in redistricting.

Mirski asked legislative researcher Pamela Smarling to research the governor’s prerogative on redistricting in the other 49 states.

The preference of the panel’s boss is to finish the work during this legislative session. The job cannot begin in earnest until the Census Bureau sends New Hampshire an updated report on population later this spring.

“I prefer not to drag it to the summer, but let’s see what time it takes,” Mirski said.

Former Rep. Donald Stritch, R-Auburn, chaired the House process a decade ago and warned this job will take at least another 10 months to complete.

Some city charters will need to be changed to accommodate changes in their House delegations, Stritch explained.

By the numbers, Nashua is likely to lose at least one House member, going from 28 to 27 members while Manchester should lose two from 35 to 33.

“Forget getting this all done by June; it’s going to be November,” Stritch predicted.

While research will continue, Stritch was doubtful lawmakers are going to find a software program that would fit the uniqueness of New Hampshire’s process.

Its guidelines in the past have been that districts can’t cross county lines, they can only join “comparable” communities and they can’t merge towns divided by natural barriers like rivers or mountains.

“When it comes to redistricting software, there ain’t no one out there that can write this,” quipped Stritch, a retired school administrator.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.