CARSON CITY – As millions of Americans fill out their census forms over the next several weeks in the nation’s once-a-decade head count, they no doubt will see the process as a minor inconvenience at most.
But the 2010 census count isn’t just about adding up the population in each state. It is also the starting point for what most observers agree is the most political and contentious issue state lawmakers ever face: The redrawing of political boundaries for members of Congress and especially themselves.
The census count triggers the redistricting and reapportionment process every 10 years, which is designed to make political boundaries approximately equal in population in each state. The census can also lead to Congressional seats being relocated to states where populations have increased since the prior count.
In Nevada the process can pit party against party, national party interests versus local interests, north versus south and Assembly versus Senate. Add to the mix the desires of lawmakers who wish to protect their seats and ensure continued re-election, a major statewide budget crisis, a dozen or more freshman lawmakers and 120 days to get job done, and the 2011 Nevada legislative session will likely be both grueling and interesting to watch.
“It’s huge,” said Ryan Erwin, a political consultant who worked on reapportionment in Nevada in the 2001 session on behalf of Assembly and Senate Republicans. “Ultimately what happens will have a huge impact on Nevada politics over the next decade. Redistricting will have a longer term impact on the finances of this state than any two-year budget ever will.”
In one sign of how serious the issue is for the parties, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, in a memo put out March 15, identified Nevada’s state Senate as one of 10 legislative chambers having tight contests where Democrats need to work to maintain control this election year.
“The DLCC is determined to run the largest Democratic redistricting mobilization in history this year to ensure that our state legislative candidates have the resources needed to win against well-heeled Republican special interests,” the memo says.
The DLCC has established a fund to put $20 million into races that will have the greatest impact on reapportionment, the memo says.
Erwin, who was the executive director of the state Republican Party at the time of the 2001 redistricting, said the issues for lawmakers can be very personal. In the 2001 process, for example, there was a lawmaker who demanded that the hospital she was born in be included in her district, he said.
Others want double-digit voter registration advantages, Erwin said.
“It’s a very personal process,” he said. “You see the selfish side of people with redistricting more than with any other piece of legislation.”
But much of the process is bound by constitutional requirements for fair and reasonable district boundaries, and so only a portion of the process could be called discretionary, Erwin said.
In the 2001 process, which included the creation of a new Congressional 3 District in Southern Nevada, no one was really happy with the final result, which Erwin said is probably a sign that the process was fair.
“First and foremost you have a responsibility to create fair lines,” he said. “Second is to get what you want.”
In the 2011 process, lawmakers will likely have the chance to create a fourth Congressional seat given Nevada’s population growth over the past decade. Another issue on the table will be whether to expand the size of the Legislature, which now stands at 63 members.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who is running for the Washoe 1 Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, due to term limits, said the process is critically important for both parties but the results are not always easy to predict.
“Republicans designed a lot of seats last time, and see what happened in 10 years,” she said. “It’s hard to predict what will happen in 10 years.”
The Senate in 2001 had a 12-9 GOP edge, and Republicans held on to the majority in the upper house until the 2008 election, when Democrats took the majority for the first time since 1991.
In the Assembly, Democrats ruled with 27 members compared to 15 GOP lawmakers. Democrats have held on to the majority ever since.
The importance of the redistricting process can be gauged in a variety of ways. For Leslie, winning her race is important because it is now the only Democratic state Senate seat outside of Clark County.
“From that point of view it could not be more critical to maintain at least one seat and hope to expand Democratic representation in northern Nevada,” she said.
But Leslie said she also favors an effort to create some more competitive seats in the process so that voters have a choice.
“It really serves Democracy better by creating a more even playing field,” she said.
Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said enlarging the Legislature is an issue of particular concern to rural lawmakers, who have seen their districts grow large geographically because of the population growth in Southern Nevada.
Also on the Assembly GOP agenda is taking away the Democrat’s current veto-proof 28-seat advantage by winning as many new seats as possible.
“Otherwise it is pretty tough to play,” he said.
The process will be interesting because so many veteran lawmakers will not be participating due to term limits and other reasons, Goicoechea said.
Only two members of the Assembly, Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, will have gone through the redistricting process, assuming they are both re-elected this year.
“It’s almost a different generation,” Goicoechea said. “There aren’t as many scars. I do feel we will get along.”
Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who was involved in the 2001 redistricting process as a member of the Assembly GOP leadership, said the impending 2011 redistricting is why she and other Republicans are working so hard to regain the majority in the Senate.
“It is so essential that we have control for this redistricting,” she said. “Without it this will be very detrimental, not for two years, but 10.”
The last go-round was grossly unfair to Republicans in the Assembly, Cegavske said.
“We should have sued,” she said. “It was so out of whack and unfair.”
Cegavske, who herself is up for re-election to her Clark 8 seat, has two Democratic challengers who will fight it out in a primary. An Independent American candidate withdrew from the race.
Cegavske said she is taking nothing for granted in her race. She expects to be targeted because the Democrats would like to pick up two seats to get 14 members, a veto-proof majority.
“Redistricting should be about the representation of the people of Nevada,” she said. “I believe in that. The side deals have to stop. It should all be out in the public and not behind closed doors.”
While Cegavske believes the GOP got a bad deal with the Assembly districts created in 2001, they were finalized without any representation from the Assembly GOP in a final late night meeting.
Then-Assembly Minority Leader Lynn Hettrick, now a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said there was no representation in the final meeting because there was nothing to negotiate.
Hettrick said he worked all session to try to come up with a compromise plan only to be told in the final days that Assembly Democrats had decided to draw the districts on their own. There was nothing to negotiate at any final meeting on redistricting because the bill had already been drafted, he said.
Hettrick said he offered to participate if there was a real chance of compromise with Democrats, but never got a call.
“I was asked to come in so it appeared I was agreeing with the plan,” Hettrick said. “There is no way I would have agreed to it.”
“It was a done deal,” he said. “There was no negotiating I was going to be able to do or not do.”
Former Gov. Kenny Guinn, who was involved in the 2001 redistricting process, said he recalls there was a strong interest on the part of Republicans to get as favorable a registration balance in the newly created Congressional 3 seat as possible, and so the Assembly districts ended up more favorable to Democrats as part of the give-and-take of the negotiations.
The new Congressional seat was won by then-state Sen. Jon Porter, R-Henderson, in the 2002 election, a seat he retained until losing in 2008 to former state Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas.
But the strong Democrat majority in the Assembly had a lot to do with how the districts ended up being redrawn as well, Guinn said.
Another major issue in 2001 was a desire to create some districts that would give minority candidates, including Hispanics, an opportunity to run and win office in the state Legislature, he said.
Guinn said he believes Hispanic representation did improve as a result of the redistricting, although it occurred over time, not immediately. The issue of minority representation will likely come up again in 2011, and it has to be given serious consideration, he said.
Guinn said the 2011 redistricting process will be the most important in Nevada’s history. But he said the governor does not have a lot of power, other than that of persuasion, over the process.
The governor does have the power to veto any redistricting plan passed by the Legislature, however, which would require a two-thirds vote in both houses to override.
Erwin said the Assembly Republicans probably did as good a job as possible given their minority status in the Assembly.
“The reality is the minority party in redistricting rarely has the opportunity to make substantial gains,” he said.
In the 2010 election, a mid-term contest where voters frequently favor the minority party, Republicans have a chance to pick up a state Senate seat and possibly as many as four Assembly seats, he said.
Reducing the Democrat edge in the Senate and taking away a veto-proof majority in the Assembly will have a substantial impact on the redistricting process, Erwin said. Having a Republican in the governor’s office, which appears likely, will also help, he said.
For Democrats, “It will no longer be a home run,” Erwin said.