A special legislative commission that is redrawing voting districts in Maine is quickly running out of time and the public still has not seen how Republicans and Democrats would like to reshape the state’s political landscape.

During a meeting of the commission Friday, Republican lawmakers on the commission called for greater transparency as they work to redraw the boundaries for 35 state Senate districts, 151 state House districts and Maine’s two U.S. congressional districts.

But so far, neither those Republicans nor the Democrats on the 15-member panel have come forward with any details on their competing proposals, despite previous statements by both about the need for public participation. Many expected Friday’s meeting would include a presentation of preliminary maps for the new districts, which among other things will move some 23,000 voters from Maine’s 1st Congressional District to its 2nd. Instead, while the commission held its first public hearing on the redistricting effort, there was little for the public to weigh in on.

Proposals are now expected to be revealed next week before another public hearing. That hearing has been scheduled for Monday, Sept. 20, just one week before a final commission vote on all the proposed changes.

The job of redrawing political boundaries is prompted every 10 years by new U.S. Census data on population. But, this time around, the process is taking place in a compressed time frame because the federal census data was not received until mid-August, well past the state’s constitutional June 1 deadline for redrawing the lines.

In a July ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court gave the panel 45 days after it received the federal Census data to present a plan to the Legislature. That deadline is Sept. 27.

The Legislature then will have 10 days to vote to approve the changes by a two-thirds margin. If the commission, which includes seven Republicans, seven Democrats and a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice who serves as chair, is unable to produce a plan that can garner the support of two-thirds of the state Senate and House, the districts will be redrawn by the courts, according to Maine’s Constitution.

While new boundaries for legislative districts could be controversial and even push some sitting lawmakers into neighboring districts, many are waiting to learn the new boundary between Maine’s two congressional districts. Because Maine’s population growth happened in the southern and coastal 1st District, the commission needs to move 23,300 voters into the northern and mostly rural 2nd District.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a commission member who pushed Friday for the public to have a chance to weigh in, said later that the two sides were largely in agreement that only communities in Kennebec County would be the focus of rebalancing the congressional districts. The county is the only one in Maine currently split between the two districts and the commission’s chair, former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander, has repeatedly indicated that would remain the case after redistricting this year.

While a number of Kennebec County communities are likely to be moved from the 1st District to the 2nd, one or more 2nd District towns also could be moved to  the 1st to reach the right balance between the districts that’s required under both state and federal law without splitting complete municipalities between the districts.

CHANGES IN KENNEBEC COUNTY ONLY

“Everybody quickly agreed that we  just stick with dividing Kennebec County differently so the (congressional) districts won’t change that much,” Bennett said.

Still, Republicans and Democrats may have different ideas about which communities should be moved based on their political makeups. The cities of Augusta and Waterville both sit on the boundary and could be affected by the changes.

During the commission’s meeting Friday, Bennett politely pressed Alexander to provide time for the public to contemplate and offer testimony on all the changes the commission may recommend.

“I’m committed to a public process as we try to work to consensus, even if we don’t have a lot of public comment we need to allow for it,” Bennett said. That testimony could frame changes to the maps and how voting and elections are organized both statewide and at the local level, he said. “This is critically important work as it establishes a framework for democracy in Maine for the next 10 years,” Bennett said.

He said the process the commission was undertaking this year was “unprecedented” and much of the opaqueness around it was being driven in part by a constricted timeline for getting the complicated job done. “In the past I think we’ve seen a lot more public posturing because we had many more months to deal with it,” Bennett said.

Following the meeting on Friday, Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, another commission member, said he believed both sides wanted a consensus deal. But he also said he had yet to see proposed maps from either side.

In a prepared statement on Friday, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said Democrats were committed to working toward a bipartisan consensus.

“Redrawing legislative and congressional districts is no easy task,” Jackson said. “Having served on the Apportionment Commission during the last redistricting process, I know that it’s possible for this bipartisan commission to come up with reasonable maps that best reflect Maine people and communities, and can earn the necessary two-thirds support from the Maine Legislature.”


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