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WV should consider independent commission for redistricting, advocates say

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators may want to consider turning redistricting duties over to an independent commission in 2021 — particularly since the next round of redistricting almost certainly will require eliminating one of the state’s three congressional seats.

That was the advice of George Carenbauer, a former Charleston lawyer and lobbyist who served as state Democratic Party chairman, and as counsel to Gov. Jay Rockefeller and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

“That is a very uncomfortable position for the Legislature to be in,” Carenbauer said of having to redraw three Congressional districts into two, forcing two incumbents to oppose each other for re-election. “If you have an independent commission, you don’t have to deal with that.”

In 1991, the last time West Virginia lost a seat in Congress, legislators spent much of the year in an ugly, extended wrangle over redistricting, with the four congressmen lobbying to protect their districts. The Legislature did not pass a redistricting plan until that October, and it faced multiple legal challenges prior to the 1992 elections.

Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary that seven states currently use independent commissions for Congressional redistricting, and 13 states use that process for legislative redistricting.

Iowa has the most nonpartisan process, she said, not only having an independent commission, but also limiting them to using census data only to draw districts. Underhill said that frequently results in incumbents having to run against each other, something legislators tend to avoid when they are in control of redistricting.

Carenbauer also encouraged legislators to continue moving toward single-member House of Delegates districts.

In 2011 redistricting, legislators increased the number of single-member districts from 36 to 47, and reduced the size of the largest multi-member district in the state from seven members to five.

Carenbauer noted that voters in that county, Monongalia, can vote for five delegates, while larger population Berkeley County is divided into six single-member districts.

“I don’t know a policy reason for that,” he said.

Before moving to Washington, D.C. after retirement, Carenbauer noted that he lived in a House district that until 2013 had seven delegates, which he said gave residents of that district disproportionate representation in the House.

“In a seven-member district, I had access to somebody on almost every committee,” he said.

Carenbauer said multi-member districts favor candidates with high name recognition, while running head-to-head in single-member district races makes candidates more accountable to voters.

He noted that the trend nationally has been toward single-member districts, with only 10 states currently having multi-member districts.

Carenbauer said that ideally, House and Senate districts should be interlinked, citing a past legislative proposal to have 16 two-member senatorial districts (down from the current 17), and having six single-member House districts within each senatorial district.

That would also reduce the size of the Legislature from 134 members to 128.

Afterward, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, said he hasn’t tried to gauge interest in the Legislature for creating an independent redistricting commission, but noted there have been bills introduced in past sessions to create such commissions.

Also during legislative interim meetings Monday:

Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy reiterated that state revenue collections are on sound footing after the first quarter of the budget year, with the $1.3 billion in tax collections missing projections by just $8 million — as opposed to an $87 million shortfall at the same point last year.

“We are on target with the budget,” he told the Joint Standing Committee on Finance. “In other words, there’s no large deficit as there was a year ago.”

One exception is sales tax collections, which are lagging $17 million behind estimates.

Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said an aging population may be a factor in that decline.

“We’re spending more and more dollars on health care,” he said, pointing out that almost all health care goods and services are exempt from sales taxes.

Older people also tend to spend less on consumer goods, particularly major purchases, he said.

Clayton Burch, chief academic officer for the state Department of Education, said a new department policy allowing county school systems to add 30 minutes to the school day is recognition of the need to give county boards of education more flexibility and control.

“We are here to support. We are not here to dictate,” Burch told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability.

The additional half-hour adds up to provide five days that schools can use for cancellation for snow days, and an additional five days for professional development, while complying with the requirement to provide the equivalent of 180 instructional days during the school year.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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