Congressional mapping bill put on hold

Puebloans say they want to stay in Western Slope congressional district

PUEBLO – A congressional redistricting bill by Four Corners Republicans is on “the backest of back burners” and will not be heard until April, if at all, a Republican leader said Saturday.

Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio and Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango introduced a bill a week ago to restore an old GOP law repealed by Democrats last year that tells courts how to draw congressional districts.

It’s a highly charged partisan issue because Republicans adopted the bill in 2004, when they were hoping to minimize Democratic districts and win up to six of the state’s seven congressional seats.

Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said Brown’s and Roberts’ House Bill 1276 troubles him because it threatens the bipartisan effort he is helping lead in the hopes that the Legislature can draw new districts and avoid going to the courts.

Balmer asked Speaker of the House Frank McNulty to put the bill on hold until April, when Balmer’s committee is supposed to send a bipartisan map to the Legislature.

“We have asked the speaker to put the bill on the backest of back burners, which he has done,” Balmer said.

The bill would give the courts a number of criteria for drawing congressional districts. Judges would have to preserve city and county boundaries, with priority for the most populated areas. A lower priority would be to keep the Western Slope and Eastern Plains in their own districts.

The bill had been scheduled for its first hearing Wednesday.

Balmer revealed the move Saturday at a public hearing of the Legislature’s special redistricting commission in Pueblo. The commission is supposed to draw a bipartisan map that the Legislature can pass this spring.

Roberts called the bill a fallback position if the panel can’t agree on a map.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” she said of the bill’s delay. “The whole point was for the commission to get that done.”

Saturday’s hearing was the seventh of 10 public meetings the panel of five Democrats and five Republicans has held around the state.

“What we’re trying to do is make history,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who serves as co-chairman of the panel along with Balmer. “The Legislature has been unable, for whatever reason, for the last four times to come up with a map.”

The Legislature is supposed to draw new Congressional districts every 10 years, after the census. The Western Slope’s 3rd Congressional District needs to gain 12,271 people to stay in balance with the other six districts.

Wally Stealey, a longtime Democratic activist, was not impressed with pledges of bipartisanship.

“You can sit there and talk to me about ‘bipartisan’ as long as you want, but it is the most political process in the state of Colorado or any other state. It is the nature of the game,” Stealey said.

About 55 people attended Saturday’s meeting, and most who testified wanted Pueblo to remain in the 3rd Congressional District.

The county lies on the eastern edge of the primarily Western Slope district.

But it is the most crucial county in the district. With 159,063 people, it’s the most populous county, and it has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Without Pueblo, it would be much harder for Democrats to beat freshman Republican Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez.

Pueblo and the nearby San Luis Valley also have a concentration of Hispanic voters, and federal law requires that districts not dilute the strength of minority voting blocs.

The district is united by the importance of water, said John Singletary of Pueblo, who serves on the Colorado Agriculture Commission.

“We’re a district that’s trying to hold on to our water, and the other six districts are trying to figure out a way to get it,” Singletary said.

Panel members will begin drawing their maps after they finish their public hearings next Saturday in Grand Junction.

jhanel@durango herald.com