For the first time in 10 years, nonpartisan redistricting legislation was introduced in the governor’s proposed budget. Gov. Tony Evers believes the move will create more equitable elections and check what he sees as long-standing Republican gerrymandering practices.
Evers’ redistricting legislation will be considered by the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which has spent this week scrutinizing Evers’ proposed budget.
The hearings on Wednesday and Thursday provided Republicans an opportunity to criticize Evers’ plan and to offer alternative options to the proposed budget. The severe backlash Evers’ budget received from across the aisle illustrates a divergence in priorities between the two parties.
Issues pertaining to education, gas costs and worker development have been hot topics in the deliberations. One item that has been relatively quiet in legislative discussions is nonpartisan redistricting.
“[Republicans] hate the idea,” Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin Jay Heck said. “It’s the source of obviously a lot of their power, and they don’t want to give it up.”
Common Cause is Wisconsin’s largest nonpartisan political reform advocacy organization. The advocacy group focuses on monitoring political process issues, which includes gerrymandering, as well as the behavior of elected officials, according to Heck.
Introduced as standalone legislation, or not as part of the budget, the last nine years have been muddled by unsuccessful attempts of initiating nonpartisan redistricting reform, according to Heck.
“We’ve been unable to get even so much as a public hearing from the Republican leadership of the state legislature,” Heck said.
According to Heck, Wisconsin is one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S. He believes that 90 percent of Wisconsin elections, including all congressional elections, are hampered by gerrymandering.
“It’s corrupted and changed in such a way that makes it impossible for voters to have a real choice,” Heck said.
Currently, the party in control of the state legislature determines how the congressional districts are drawn out, according to Heck. The proposed reforms would take the power out of politician’s hands and instead place the power into the hands of a nonpartisan entity.
The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau would assume redistricting duties and adhere to a strict nonpartisan criteria in drawing congressional districts free of political bias and to foster more competitive elections.
Heck anticipates that the Republican-dominated state legislature will eliminate the redistricting reform, along with other components of Evers’ plan, from the budget.
Heck spotted what he believes to be a silver-lining despite the proposed legislations’ perceived demise. Heck believes that increased public attention and media coverage from the proposed legislation will promote nonpartisan redistricting reform and fairer elections.
“Citizens will be able to express their support and weigh in on this particular issue as well as many other issues,” Heck said.
Certain budgetary issues, including redistricting reform, could become gridlocked. While the Republican-majority can cross off particular items, Evers can override with his veto powers.
“The greatest source of power for the governor is his veto ability,” Heck said. “There is great ability for the governor to shape the budget, and that’s just something that other states have not given quite that kind of authority to the governor.”
Bipartisan support from the state legislature will be needed for the budget to be passed by its July 1 due date, when the new fiscal year begins.
The first opportunity for Wisconsinites to voice their opinions on Evers’ budget begins Friday. Public hearings are scheduled to take place in Janesville, Oak Creek, River Falls and Green Bay.