Column #130. First published in the St. Cloud Times online May 5, 2018; in print May 6
We’re about to be catapulted into the past. Gerrymandering is on the verge of a legislative boost. (For your trivia file: In 1812 Gov. Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a bill that served his party by wrapping a state senate election district around Boston in what looked like a salamander.)
First, though, the context, in Latin.
“Omnibus.” It means “for all.” The term applies to any vehicle that carries passengers, and originally meant an enclosed one drawn by horses.
That’s not what the term means in St. Paul, though “enclosed,” and even “horse-drawn,” are pretty good descriptors of what happens at the Capitol as a legislative session hurtles toward its constitutionally-mandated expiration date.
“What’s up with all the omnibus bills?” asks the Times (Apr. 29).
As the Times reporter succinctly noted, getting rid of them “might be easier said than done.”
The state constitution is clear: Article 4, Section 17. “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”
Whether A, B, and C constitute “one subject” is of course a matter of interpretation. Not always do all the passengers belong in the same enclosed vehicle.
Rep. Jim Knoblach says that "in a perfect world, you'd have all these individual bills. It would be more transparent if all these bills moved separately." But, he noted, it isn’t practical to debate every provision of every bill. There simply isn’t enough time.
In some instances, to be sure, everything properly belongs in the enclosed vehicle.
But: Right now a passenger is being surreptitiously sneaked onto one omnibus, and will hijack it and take us into the ditch.
House File 314, authored by Rep. Sarah Anderson, and Senate File 86, authored by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, would make a new law in Minnesota Statutes, Article 2 (State Government Operations), Section 1 (Districting Principles).
This is the new language: “Notwithstanding any laws to the contrary, legislative and congressional districts must be drawn by the legislature, consistent with the requirements of the Minnesota Constitution, article IV, section 3. The legislature may not delegate its duty to draw districts to any commission, council, panel, or other entity that is not comprised solely of members of the legislature.”
The legislature, following each decennial census, has drawn up district maps. Since 1966 they have failed every time to come up with a constitutionally acceptable plan. Part of the reason: They can’t bring themselves to abide by subdivision 9 of the Statute, “The districts must not be drawn for the purpose of protecting or defeating an incumbent.”
Over and over again the Minnesota Supreme Court has had to draw district lines. This shouldn’t be their job, but when the legislative and executive branches balk (the governor can veto), the justices have to step up.
The fact that both parties try gerrymandering doesn’t make it right.
Several states have taken the sensible step of turning redistricting over to an independent electoral commission.
There are several ways to determine who the commission will be. A bill has been proposed in the Minnesota Senate (SF2052):
“Members must be appointed to a redistricting commission as provided in this subdivision to draw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts. The commission consists of seven retired judges of the appellate or district courts of this state who have not served in a party-designated or party-endorsed position, such as legislator. The senate majority leader, the senate minority leader, the speaker of the house, and the minority leader of the house of representatives must each appoint one judge. The chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court must appoint one judge. The chief judge of the Court of Appeals must appoint one judge. The governor must appoint one judge.”
This eminently sensible proposal hasn’t even had a hearing. Anderson and Kiffmeyer would outlaw it.
And what about the State Government Finance Omnibus Bill (HF4016; SF3764)? The Anderson/Kiffmeyer bill has been cobbled together with scores of other items (including license exemption for eyelash-extension services — I don’t doubt the importance of this, but it’s of a different order of significance from redistricting), and there is no clear connection between redistricting and government finance.
By inserting HF314 and SF86 into an omnibus bill as critical as government finance (the governor can line-item veto only appropriations), the legislative majorities have exceeded the capacity of the enclosed vehicle.
I hope the legislators from our area — Relph, Theis, Knoblach, Fischbach, Howe, O’Driscoll, Mathews, Erickson, Newberger — do not support what Anderson and Kiffmeyer are up to, because the right to fair voting is foundational to the democracy they are sworn to uphold.
Please call/email/write them, now, to encourage them to get redistricting out of the omnibus bill, and to support a redistricting commission that will make real the hope Yogi Berra put unforgettably, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”