The Legislature won’t convene the 2022 budget session for more than two months, but there’s already a runaway favorite for MVP honors.
Who? Oh, this one is a shocker … the Wyoming Constitution!
Yes, I’ve picked a 131-year-old inanimate object over any of the 90 flesh-and-blood lawmakers to be the most productive, capable and effective defender of our liberties. There’s no shame in that for the legislators — it’s still a lively document, and it truly shines when redistricting comes around every 10 years.
Why? Because based on how the always-tricky process has played out thus far, I don’t think the House and Senate would ever agree on a new plan without a Constitutional mandate to do so. The architects of Wyoming’s government really knew what they were doing.
This isn’t a knock on members of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, who have been hard at work for months on a redistricting plan that will meet the U.S. Constitution’s principle of “one person, one vote.”
It’s a difficult task that lawmakers undertake during the first budget session after each U.S. Census. The committee set Dec. 1 as its deadline to draft a bill that redraws House and Senate district boundaries, but a week into December, it has only managed to approve a tentative plan that’s far from being finalized.
“We’ve got ourselves an impossible situation,” Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), the longest-serving legislator in Wyoming’s history, said at the Dec. 2 meeting in Cheyenne.
Scott’s assessment came immediately after the panel rejected his proposal to advance a second plan. The one already in the hopper would give Laramie County — Wyoming’s largest — an additional House member, but Scott wanted to maintain the delegation from the state capitol region at the current 10 representatives. Scott opposed that proposed growth.
“We have been rolled in the process. I think that one county has exercised an extraordinary lack of statesmanship in this,” he said, clearly emotional. “I think we have transformed what was a relatively simple reapportionment into something that just isn’t going to work for one house of the Legislature, and I’m frankly disgusted.
“This is my fifth one of these things … and I think it has been messed up like you wouldn’t believe,” Scott added.
Emotions were raw at the meeting, and not only due to the dust-up over the size of Laramie County’s House delegation. There was not a region in the state without a perceived problem — either with the proposed placement of district boundary lines or the number of voters in each district.
The committee decided to keep the Legislature’s current make-up of 60 House and 30 Senate seats. The “ideal” House district size, based on 2020 Census data, is about 9,600 residents. Two full, contiguous House districts are “nested” in each Senate district.
The U.S. Supreme Court allows a difference of plus or minus 5 percentage points between the arithmetically ideal size and each district’s actual composition. Here’s where map designers have their work cut out for them: Laramie County has grown by 9.25% since 2010 and now has 100,770 residents. That means it should have about 10.5 House members.
So, what do you do with one-half of a representative? Nothing, if Scott gets his way. Having crunched the numbers, he realized Laramie County can stay at 10 House members with each district 4.9% above the ideal.
Co-Chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), though, called foul. That’s because while Scott wants to bump up the population size of each Laramie County House district, the senator’s plan would also allow all western Wyoming counties that have been shrinking to have districts between 4.6% to 4.9% under the ideal size.
While that drastic shift may meet constitutional muster, is it fair? “It would not be palatable to my community,” Zwonitzer said.
I live in Cheyenne, and I’ll say what the co-chairman was driving at in a bit harsher terms: That part of Scott’s plan reeks.
Why? Because it dilutes the power of Laramie County voters, who would get one representative per 10,070 residents. On the other side of the state, that same electoral result would be obtained in a House district serving only 9,130 residents.
Scott’s underlying concern with Zwonitzer’s plan to give Laramie County an 11th House member is how it impacts his own chamber. Which Senate district would be pulled toward Cheyenne to encapsulate the new House district? (Remember, it takes two House districts next to each other to “nest” in a Senate district.)
And if southeast Wyoming gets an extra senator, what part of the state loses one? It’s a valid concern, and I don’t fault Scott for raising the issue.
Zwonitzer said perhaps his county could share a Senate district with Albany or Platte counties. That would just rile up a different set of voters though. Platte County officials reported their residents overwhelmingly rejected sharing any district with Laramie County.
What could be seen as Platte’s inhospitable attitude is, in my view, justified, given the hard feelings left over in the region from a decade ago. Laramie County encroached on a Goshen County Senate district to spare two incumbents from having to oppose each other. That’s why Senate District 6 now snakes up the Nebraska border and includes the medium-security state prison in Torrington!
That bit of skullduggery could come back to bite Laramie County, which needs all the help it can muster if it wants an extra House seat in 2022.
Zwonitzer lobbed a few not-so-subtle grenades into the discussion. He didn’t use the loaded “G” word — gerrymandering — but he alluded to incumbents trying to protect their seats.
“I can tell you I’m not happy with how some of these maps were drawn … I know they look funny because I know where people live,” Zwonitzer said. “And I don’t think it’s in the best interests of those constituents in those communities, but that’s their own legislators’ concern.”
An unknown factor is how redistricting could impact future Senate races. Half of the 30 Senate seats — which are all four-year terms — are up for election every two years. But how many senators have to stand for election early as the result of district changes will be up to the Legislature.
There are myriad ways district boundaries will change between now and the session’s end in March. That a plan will be approved is assured, thanks to the Wyoming Constitution, but that doesn’t mean a majority — or anyone for that matter — will actually like it.
It may seem like a lot of blood was spilled at the committee’s two-day meeting, but it’s nothing compared to what will happen when all 90 legislators get their hands on the committee’s recommendations.
Wyoming would be wise to put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, as 15 other states have done. No system is without flaws, but at least it would remove the stain of lawmakers blatantly trying to preserve their own jobs.
It won’t happen, of course. Such action would require a constitutional amendment, and there’s no way the Legislature would ever willingly give up its power.
Still, as I watched members battle over minutiae, one fact became painfully clear: anger, bewilderment and — as Scott said at least twice — personal disgust will define the process.
Fourteen legislators and not a poker face among them? Now I’ve seen everything.