Nebraska legislators voted on Thursday, Sept. 30, to approve new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. The legislative changes were approved 37-7, and the congressional ones passed 35-11.
With Gov. Pete Ricketts signing the changes into law shortly after passage, the changes go into effect immediately. The first elections taking place within the new boundaries will occur in 2022.
For Panhandle residents, some will see new senators covering their districts, with coverage experiencing a few changes on the legislative side of things. District 48, which used to encompass just Scotts Bluff County, now extends south to include Banner and Kimball counties. District 47 takes over Grant County and will now include the entirety of Box Butte County.
“It’s a math drill, because ultimately we’ve got to come to some kind of closure,” District 43 Sen. Tom Brewer, who was among the nine members of the state’s Redistricting Committee, said.
His district’s new boundaries extend from Dawes County in the northern Panhandle to Custer County in the middle of the state.
“It’s literally the size of the country of Croatia,” he said.
Custer County, which forms much of the district’s new size, was taken from the dissolved District 36. The district now encompasses the westernmost part of Douglas County.
The move was due to the growing populations of the Lincoln and Omaha metropolitan areas, and the population decline west of those areas. Brewer said eastern senators don’t have much passion for helping the rural parts of the state.
“Our mission this year in the legislature is to figure out how to shift money to western, rural Nebraska,” he said. The Legislature “will eventually break the backs of the agricultural community,” he opined, if the western half of the state does not get more representation.
Representation in western Nebraska has diminished from ten districts in the 1960s to the five it will have now.
District 48’s Sen. John Stinner said District 36’s Matt Williams, an outgoing senator due to term limits, agreed to have his district moved so Dawson County would be kept together. It is now part of District 44.
“A lot of people had to come together on several issues,” Stinner said, adding concessions were crucial to getting the plans passed on their first readings. His own district could have potentially included Sioux County, but he petitioned to keep the district more focused on farming communities rather than mixing farming and ranching areas.
Stinner said increased workforce housing and continued economic development will be good ways to increase rural Nebraska’s population in the future.
Sen. Steve Erdman joined another rural Republican and five urban Democrats in voting against the legislative changes, calling the new map “a mistake.” He proposed an idea to keep existing districts in the heavily-populated Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties exclusive to those counties. The other 22 districts would be spread out among the other 90 counties.
Despite widespread legislative support for a map incorporating those ideas, he said, the Redistricting Committee did not consider it.
“Transferring a seat from central to eastern Nebraska did not need to happen, but this is the way the unicameral system works,” Erdman said.
He said rural Nebraska would continue to lose representation as long as the state legislature takes just population, and not geography, into account.
“I think going away from the unicameral system would be a great idea,” he said.
For the congressional map, all of Douglas County stays in the 2nd District, joined by the whole of Saunders County to the southwest.
Saunders was an addition from the 1st District, which also lost half of Polk County and four counties bordering the Missouri River to the 3rd District. Erdman said the congressional changes were “about as fair as we could make them.”
New district lines were also approved, and signed into law by Ricketts, for the state’s Public Service Commission, state Board of Education, Board of Regents and Supreme Court. These attracted more favorable support from the legislators, though none of the votes were unanimous.