Friday, May 20, 2011

House Democrats release their proposed district map

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House released its proposed legislative map today as Republicans decried what they saw as a lack of transparency in the redistricting process.

Watchers of Illinois politics got a brief chance to peruse proposed legislative districts posted on the House Democrats' website this morning, only to see the map disappear. Copies floated around various news outlets today as House Democrats declined to comment on whether the map was the real deal. House Democrats released an official copy of their proposal late this afternoon.

Committee hearings are scheduled for this Sunday in Chicago and Tuesday at the Statehouse. But Republicans say more time and information, such as the demographic makeups of the districts, are needed for the public to have a chance to make informed comments before the map is approved — likely next week.

“It is disingenuous for the House Democrats to release this map late in the afternoon on a Friday with very limited access to demographic data and an analysis that explains why they drew the boundaries where they did. How can the residents of our state have time to access the information …digest it and be prepared to testify at a hearing in Chicago on Sunday afternoon? A hearing in Chicago and one in Springfield is not enough; we are calling for more statewide hearings in the next few weeks before a vote is taken,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said in a written statement.

Chicago Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, was coy at a hearing this morning when asked whether the Democrats will supply more data and analysis to go along with their map. “I don’t have a timetable, so I can’t really let you know when and what [may be released].”

For the first time since 1971, one party controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. That means Democrats can pass a map much as they have other controversial pieces of legislation recently: without any Republican support. “They can run the thing like a straight bill, pass it, get it signed — if they can all stay together, which is often a question with Democrats in particular. But I think they probably will in this case. … They can do what they want, and they can do it during the regular session,” said Christopher Mooney, a political studies professor with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

When the party balance was split during several redistricting attempts in past decades, the General Assembly was not able to come to an agreement on a map, so the decision of which party chose the districts came down to a so-called coin toss. But that process also delayed the final decisions on the map well past the regular legislative session. “That is a completely different time in the legislative year…that’s September. The regular session is way over,” Mooney said.

The accelerated timeline this year means the drawing of the legislative lines, upon which lawmakers depend for their political lives, could potentially serve as a big political bargaining chip as legislators try to put votes on controversial bills such as workers’ compensation reform, changes to pension benefits for current state employees and politically unsavory cuts to the state budget.

“If I was running one of the chambers and I had some difficult bills that I wanted to get done — whether they be these very serious cuts to human services or local government and education or the pension changes that are very dramatic and very impactful on current and future state employees … if I was running the party and I wanted to get through the next election, one way I would do that is try [to use the map] to force some of the other party members onto those bills and therefore take the steam out … the partisan angst out of those bills,” Mooney said.

Some Senate Republicans yesterday referred to the map Democrats proposed in their chamber as a “shocker map” to be used as a scare tactic. They said that they expected the plan to change over the coming days.

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said he does not expect drastic changes to the map because Democrats hold all the cards and need to pass a map in the next week to keep it that way. If a map is not passed by the end of May, Republican votes would be needed for it to go into effect before the 2012 primary election. “My guess is that there’s not going to be a lot of difference, and they don’t have a lot of time.”

He said he does not expect that testimony given at the upcoming committee hearings will do much to sway Democrats. “We’ll have some dog and pony shows before the Democrats are going to pass what they’re going to pass.”

Redfield said that Democrats will likely do well in the next elections under whatever map they pass, but the shrinking population of the city of Chicago may have dashed some hopes of a map that could have been even more favorable to the majority party. “The Democrats are going to do fine on both maps. But I think their expectations were a lot higher until they saw the census figures.’

He said the population shifts away from stronghold Democratic Chicago districts and into the suburbs made Democrats consider “plan B in terms of protecting incumbents.” The House Democrats’ map, like the proposal from their Senate counterparts, places several pairs of incumbent Republicans in the same districts. That would leave them with the choices of facing a primary challenge, running in a different district and moving if they won, or retiring.

He added that every 10 years, mapmakers look to predict the future in terms of population and political shifts, to varying degrees of success. “The map that the Republicans drew in the '80s, they really badly guessed what was going to happen with population in suburban Cook and Will [counties,] and [House Speaker Michael] Madigan was able to retake the chamber.”

Redfield added: “They didn’t anticipate the population growth and the political shift in the suburbs. And who knows how well the Democrats will guess this time?”

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