SALT LAKE CITY — A deal has been struck between lawmakers and backers of a voter-approved citizens initiative creating an independent redistricting commission to recommend new legislative, congressional and State School Board boundaries following the census every decade.
“We have a deal in principle,” said Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state representative who serves as executive director of Better Boundaries, the organization behind the initiative, known as Proposition 4, that was narrowly passed in 2018.
Chavez-Houck declined to talk about the details of the compromise until the language of the bill is released.
“I want to make sure the agreed-to language is in the bill,” she said. “I just want to make sure there are no surprises.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, was not available Wednesday because he was traveling out of state Wednesday to testify before the Rhode Island Legislature on an unrelated issue. He is expected to be back at the Capitol on Thursday for a news conference.
Last Friday, Better Boundaries sent out a news release warning lawmakers appeared ready to repeal the initiative over proposed changes seen as undoing what Chavez-Houck called “Prop. 4’s ban on partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering” by allowing the independent commission to recommend such boundaries.
But Bramble said there was no set definition for gerrymandering that could be used in the bill. The term is usually used to describe redrawing the districts of elected officials to favor incumbents as well as the political party in power.
A legislative source told the Deseret News that “the agreement will preserve the intent of an independent redistricting commission and its independence in putting forward maps that meet the redistricting standards that they have been seeking.”
The Utah Legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, has the final say on the boundary adjustments adopted to reflect population changes. But the independent redistricting commission is intended to put political pressure on lawmakers to consider maps put together outside the partisan process.
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who was part of the bipartisan, yearlong negotiation with Better Boundaries over what lawmakers saw as constitutional issues with the initiative, said he’s hoping for “a happy celebration” at Thursday’s news conference.
Vickers said the compromise has been discussed by Senate Republicans, although it could be brought back to the majority and minority caucuses once a bill with the agreed-to language is finished.
“We recognize that it is a high-profile issue but it’s also a very sensitive issue so we just have to make sure we maintain some confidences until we can come together on it,” he said. “We absolutely do not want to do anything that would jeopardize that opportunity.”
The Senate majority leader had labeled last week’s news release from Better Boundaries “nuclear,” but said it led to talks over the weekend to resolve the stalemate over what the redistricting commission can and cannot do.
In a closed meeting, the House’s majority caucus was informed Wednesday morning of the agreement with Better Boundaries, according to House GOP leaders, who expect the compromise will have bipartisan support on the House floor.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News the compromise “fixed the legal and constitutional challenge of having a conflict of interest with our attorneys” by requiring the commission to hire its own legal counsel.
It will also include $1 million to fund the commission, according to House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.
Wilson said the deal was struck earlier this week after what he called a “misunderstanding” that led Better Boundaries to issue the news release raising alarms about a repeal.
“Everyone got back together at the beginning of this week and just tried to understand where everyone’s coming from and found we were actually really close,” Wilson said. “We worked on language that clarified the scope and criteria that commission will use as they go out and make their recommendations. Basically, at the end of the day, we’re saying, ‘You guys go make your own rules and give us your recommendations.’”
The compromise bill will preserve the “spirit” of Proposition 4, Gibson said.
“They have their independent commission,” Gibson said. “In the end, that’s what this initiative process is. Not every initiative is going to get passed the way it was written. There are going to have to be tweaks. But, in the end, is there going to be an independent commission? Yep. In the end, the voters wanted us to pay for it. Are we going to pay for it? Yes.”
As word of the compromise spread Wednesday, Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, issued a statement expressing distrust with lawmakers and slamming the compromise as still a bad deal.
“In the place of Prop. 4, we are left with lawmakers telling us to trust that they’ll respectfully listen to the commission and adopt fair maps,” Thomas said. “Over the past few years, the Legislature has given us no reason to trust their intentions and we shouldn’t begin to trust them now.”
He noted lawmakers have already made significant changes to two of the three other initiatives passed by voters in the last general election, one legalizing medical marijuana and another accepting the full Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act.
“The Legislature has repeatedly shown it is not interested in upholding the will of Utah voters,” Thomas said. “Here, once again, the explanations ring hollow and voters should recognize this for the power grab it is. We strongly oppose this compromise and hope Utahns will, too.”