(Omaha, NE) -- After three days of public hearings across the state, Nebraska lawmakers will finally begin debating how to redraw the state's congressional and legislative lines.
Nebraska is home to the only officially nonpartisan legislature in America. Ultimately, though, the committee voted along party lines to advance a proposed map from committee chair Lou Ann Linehan that would split Douglas County between the first and second congressional districts.
Hundreds of Democrats showed up in Omaha Thursday to voice their opposition to splitting Douglas County. Some called the Linehan map a partisan gerrymander intended to make it more difficult for Democrats to win an electoral vote from the state. Supporters of Linehan's plan, including former Omaha mayor and congressman Hal Daub, noted that Joe Biden would have won Linehan's proposed second district by 5-percent. Daub told KFAB Radio News he testified mostly to remind the committee that "it's always been political, and it's always going to be political."
While the crowd was generally in favor of the proposal put forward by vice chair Justin Wayne that would place all of Douglas County and most of Bellevue in the second district, there were some that questioned why Sarpy County could be cut up, while Douglas County needed to remain intact. Sen. Rita Sanders and Gretna Mayor Mike Evans were some of the elected officials that testified in favor of keeping all of Sarpy County in one district. Sen. Steve Lathrop, who serves on the committee, raised the possibility of a map where both Douglas County and Sarpy County remain whole; noting they would have to be placed in separate congressional districts to meet population criteria.
Others in attendance said keeping parts of Douglas County connected to Saunders County would have a positive effect. Wann resident Mary Jane Truemper told KFAB Radio News, "I think it's not healthy for the state as a whole for Douglas County to... be placed on an island. Our roots are in [agriculture], and... placing Douglas County by itself in a congressional district would not be reflective of the communities of interest that surround it."
In the end, though, the hearings yielded a conclusion that some saw as inevitable. Sen. Carol Blood came into the process expecting the hearings to forge a bipartisan consensus. Blood told KFAB Radio News on Monday that she hoped testimony wouldn't come from activist groups reading off rehearsed pre-written scripts. After the last hearing wrapped up in Omaha, she said she was "very disappointed in some of the testimony that we heard. It's clear that some people have brought outside interests into this body."
Not everyone on the committee agreed. Sen. Suzanne Geist, who serves on the redistricting committee, said the Omaha hearing didn't properly capture the committee's nonpartisan nature. "I've been really impressed. I think the hearings have helped to depoliticize." Geist said.
Now, the debate moves to the full legislature. Sen. John McCollister, a key swing vote, tells KFAB Radio News that he expects the map to be filibustered before changes are made. (33 votes are needed to break a filibuster; there are 32 nominal Republicans.) The special session ends September 30th, but for now, it appears to be anyone's guess as to whether they can produce a final map in time.