Omaha Public Radio News
6:45 am
Sat May 14, 2011

Lawmakers hear criticism over district map plans affecting Sarpy, Box Butte counties

Lincoln, NE – Nebraska lawmakers on the Legislature's Redistricting Committee heard a lot of criticism and little praise from all over the state for their proposed congressional and legislative redistricting plans at two hearings May 13.

Each hearing included testimony from four locations around the state via video conference. Testifiers highlighted two main issues with the proposed maps at both hearings: that Alliance and Box Butte County are split between two legislative districts and the fact that the city of Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base was moved to the First Congressional District from its current location in the Second District with Omaha.

The second issue with the map is the fact that it takes eastern Sarpy County and Bellevue from congressional District 2 and combines it with District 1, which includes Lancaster County and the surrounding area.

Instead, western Sarpy County, including Papillion and La Vista, would be moved to congressional District 2 with Omaha. Those who opposed the move said Bellevue is obviously a part of Omaha and has no political relationship with the Lincoln area.

Opponents also noted that moving Bellevue instead of Papillion-La Vista into the First District seemed to be an obvious case of gerrymandering, or maneuvering the districts to favor one political party. William Forsee of Bellevue asked the committee what they feel he has in common with the First District, which represents the greater-Lincoln area. "I consider myself a part of Omaha," Forsee said.

Forsee said he feels the western part of Sarpy County, including Papillion-La Vista, has more in common with the First Dristrict, leaving Bellevue in the Second District with Omaha. Forsee said that because he pays Omaha Public Schools property taxes, can address his mail to Bellevue or Omaha, and his kids go to Omaha Public Schools, he feels he is a part of Omaha. "I do believe Bellevue is the core of Omaha," Forsee said.

Former senator Don Preister of Omaha also opposed the proposed map, saying the committee should have only made minor adjustments to the map instead of a complete reversal. Preister said a map with minor adjustments would avoid voter confusion and would keep with the Redistricting Committee's own rules set forth in a legislative resolution.

Charlene Ligon, a resident of Bellevue and retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant, agreed with Forsee. She spoke passionately about her desire for Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base to remain a part of the Second District. According to Ligon, the proposed legislative map politically disenfranchises those serving the country at Offutt Air Force Base.

Ligon said counties that are needlessly split often have lower voter turnout and receive less federal funding. Ligon said she feels the congressional district has been gerrymandered to favor Republicans, diluting the vote of Democrats by putting an urban military area like Bellevue into the First District.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican in the official non-partisan Unicameral, questioned whether Ligon was a volunteer for the Democratic Party. He asserted that most of the people from Bellevue who testified against the proposed congressional map are also affiliated with the Democratic Party, despite the fact that they testified as individuals. "I don't have to put my civic duty aside because I'm a member of a partisan organization," Ligon responded.

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln apologized to Ligon on behalf of Lautenbaugh for what she considered to be inappropriate questioning.

Despite the backlash, some testifiers spoke in favor of the proposed legislative map. Cass County Commissioner Ron Nolte said he supported the proposed map because it keeps Cass County whole, despite the fact that it splits Nebraska City. Nolte said there is no economic division in Nebraska City like there is in Alliance, so dividing Nebraska City between two districts isn't problematic.

Bob Twiss from western Sarpy County also testified as a proponent of the legislative redistricting map. Twiss said he's been around for the redistricting process, and this is the best redistricting plan he's seen in three decades. "It doesn't make much difference if it's eastern or western Sarpy County in congressional district one," Twiss said, adding that western Sarpy County feels more a part of Omaha than anywhere else.

Twiss said he was also pleased to see the population deviations between districts were kept to a minimum.

(Contact Paige Yowell at nns.pyowell@gmail.com.)