Bedke H state affairs

House Speaker Scott Bedke pitches a constitutional amendment on redistricting to the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

BOISE — An Idaho House committee agreed unanimously Thursday to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment regarding redistricting, but all it would do is fix the number of legislative districts at its current level, 35.

The measure, proposed by House Speaker Scott Bedke, would need two-thirds support from each house plus majority support from voters in November to change the Idaho Constitution.

Though there had been discussion among Republicans for the past two years about making changes to the redistricting process — including possibly adding a tie-breaking seventh member to the current constitutionally required, bipartisan six-member commission that draws new districts after the U.S. Census every 10 years — Bedke said he’s not proposing anything along those lines.

“This is an idea that nearly everyone agrees with,” he said after the committee’s unanimous vote. “The other ideas don’t enjoy the same support.”

Idaho’s congressional and state legislative lines are drawn by an independent six-member citizen commission, created by a constitutional amendment approved by Idaho voters in 1994; it is split equally between the parties. Before that, Idaho lawmakers drew the district lines themselves, an exceedingly political process that tended to focus on protecting incumbents’ seats.

The Idaho Constitution currently states that Idaho should have between 30 and 35 legislative districts, but Bedke said it’s had 35 for more than three decades.

New district lines are drawn after each national census, to ensure that the one-person, one-vote rule still applies, rather than one legislator representing more people than another. The next redistricting is coming up after this year’s census is completed.

Both of the last two redistricting cycles have seen the plans go to court, Bedke said, and “the direction from the court in each of those two cycles … has limited the flexibility of the redistricting commission when it comes to splitting counties and communities of interest.”

He said there’s been “concern by many of us, including the parties,” that to satisfy the court, plans might be developed that have fewer legislative districts than Idaho’s current 35.

In Idaho’s last redistricting process in 2011, the state was divided into legislative districts with a target size of 44,788 people each, based on the state’s population divided by 35. With the state’s population growth since then, the target population size for each district will grow. In 2011, the redistricting commission received unanimous testimony in favor of keeping the state at 35 legislative districts.

“We already have large geographic districts in the rural parts of the state, and our state is growing,” Bedke said. “In some parts of the state, you have to go a long ways to gather up another 10,000 people, if you’ll forgive me for using a cowboy phrase there. This will just peg it.”

Bedke told the Idaho Press that reducing the number of districts not only would result in potentially huge districts in rural Idaho, it also would mean less representation for everyone, urban or rural, as each legislative district grows in population.

“That’s not a good thing,” he said.

Amid all the discussion about making changes to the redistricting process, Bedke said, “Long-term, this may be the most important thing that we could do.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.