GRAND ISLAND — Pleas to protect Nebraska's rural legislative districts dominated the first of three public hearings on proposals for redrawing political boundaries.
The Legislature's Redistricting Committee held the hearing Tuesday at Central Community College, in the eastern third of the sprawling 3rd Congressional District.
Additional hearings are set for Wednesday and Thursday, where changes to the boundaries between the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts are expected to be a major focus.
But the 50 or so people who showed up for the Grand Island hearing focused on the plans for redrawing legislative districts to even out the population among shrinking rural districts and growing urban ones.
Both LB3, drawn by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn in collaboration with fellow Republicans, and LB4, drawn by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha working with fellow Democrats, would expand the geographic size of western Nebraska districts.
Both proposed changes drew opposition from testifiers.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg led off the critics of LB3, which would separate Custer and Dawson counties into different legislative districts. District 36, which he represents, now includes both counties and a piece of northern Buffalo County.
Williams, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, was joined by banking, education, health care and agricultural leaders from the area, who argued that the two counties have built strong relationships since being grouped together in the last redistricting.
"It would be a shame to break apart something that has been proven to work," said Stuart Fox, president of the Nebraska State Bank in Broken Bow.
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango took the lead in speaking against LB4, which would split up the counties in his District 44 and move the district itself from southwest Nebraska into the Omaha metro area.
Hughes, also a Republican, and others argued that counties in the Republican River basin need to stay together because of the area's history of water struggles with Kansas and Colorado. LB4 would separate four key counties from the rest of the basin.
"We are a farming, ranching people and the water issue has everything to do with our everyday life," said Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City. "It's critical that we keep a legislator that can speak for us."
Others urged the committee to do as much as possible to maintain strong rural representation in the Legislature.
"Preserving the rural voice in the Nebraska Legislature helps all Nebraskans," said Sherry Vinton, a rancher from Whitman and first vice president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, another Republican in the Legislature, suggested what he called a "common-sense approach" under which urban legislative districts would be drawn with slightly more than the target population, while rural districts would be allowed to have fewer people. Wayne, however, said he had attempted to draw such a map but found it was impossible.
Yolanda Chavez Nuncio and others raised issues about how district lines were drawn through Grand Island. She said that LB3 would split off the eastern part of the city, where many residents are Latino or immigrants. She called the division a "blatant attempt" to diminish the clout of Latino residents.
Another speaker objected to LB3 because it would split the city of Hastings, the Adams County seat, from Adams County and put it in a district with Buffalo County.