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Frontier County likely add to Lincoln County Unicameral district
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Frontier County likely add to Lincoln County Unicameral district

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Frontier County appears likely to join Lincoln County’s Unicameral district — along with one or two other counties — no matter the outcome of the special legislative redistricting session that starts Monday.

Less certain is whether the session’s result will force western Nebraska to watch one of its legislative seats depart for the Omaha area for the third time in 30 years.

The 49 lawmakers also must revise election districts for Nebraska Supreme Court judges, other statewide boards and the U.S. House of Representatives to account for 2020 U.S. census results.

Those other tasks will matter less to western Nebraskans, who live far from the 3rd Congressional District’s eastern border over which some of the partisan battles over House district lines will be fought.

But partisanship is all but certain to cloud the redistricting of America’s only officially nonpartisan state legislature, say the five senators who represent parts of The Telegraph’s traditional coverage area.

That can be seen in the “Republican” and “Democratic” labels unofficially applied to competing Unicameral maps set to be introduced after senators convene Monday.

“The next two weeks will be the most destructive in terms of friendships that we’ll have in the body,” predicted state Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon.

Both maps would move a nonmetro legislative district to fast-growing southwest Sarpy County, as required under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 “one person, one vote” ruling requiring state legislative districts to be roughly equal in population.

But the so-called Democratic plan, set for introduction by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would do so by uprooting Venango Sen. Dan Hughes’ District 44 from its southwest Nebraska home.

It would follow Districts 39 (1991) and 49 (2011) as one-time western Nebraska districts recently reincarnated in the Omaha area after western population losses.

The “Republican” map, to be offered by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha’s Elkhorn area, instead would move District 24 from west of Lincoln into Sarpy County.

Term-limited Seward Sen. Mark Kolterman represents District 24, which now covers Seward, York and Polk counties.

Linehan, a registered Republican, chairs the Legislature’s special nine-member Redistricting Committee. Wayne, a Democrat from northeast Omaha, is vice chairman.

Five Republicans and four Democrats were named to the panel by the Legislature’s Executive Board, which Hughes — a registered Republican — currently chairs.

He told The Telegraph he doesn’t think the Wayne map that would eliminate his district has partisan motivations behind it.

Neither does he expect District 44 to move east. “I think these maps will be changed drastically before the final versions come out,” Hughes said. “It’s got to start somewhere.”

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Both legislative maps would detach Frontier County from Hughes’ current district to join Lincoln County in District 42.

Population losses since 2010 in Lincoln County, long a one-county district, left it 13.4% under the average population of 40,030 per district based on the 2020 census.

Senators agreed in May that districts could be up to 5% higher or lower than the average under the “one person, one vote” standard.

To make up District 42’s losses, Linehan’s redistricting map would add Gosper County along with Frontier County. Wayne’s map would add McPherson and Logan counties to the north as well as Frontier on the south.

While he likes Wayne’s version of District 42 better, North Platte Sen. Mike Groene said, he’ll back Linehan’s plan because it wouldn’t cost western Nebraska another seat.

“Getting rid of Hughes’ district is a disaster for us” in the region, he said. District 24, the one Linehan would move, “tends to be a suburb of Lincoln anyway.”

The maps present a dilemma for District 36 Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who is term-limited like Hughes and Groene.

He also doesn’t want to lose another western district, he said, but he’ll first aim to keep Custer and Dawson counties in his district.

Wayne’s map would do that, but Linehan’s would add Custer County to Brewer’s sprawling Sandhills District 43.

“It makes great sense to me that Dawson County and Custer County stay together” because their economies and communities have much in common, Williams said.

Brewer, who represents Nebraska’s largest geographic district, said both maps would add and subtract counties from District 43 but wouldn’t change much for him.

“I’ll still have a district the size of Croatia,” he said.

Brewer, a Republican like his western Nebraska colleagues, said he was disappointed that Redistricting Committee members didn’t try harder to set politics aside in redrawing Unicameral districts.

“Each side drew their lines and said that was it,” he said. Democratic committee members “wouldn’t budge” on moving District 44, insisting that “Hughes must go.”

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said the committee should have tried shifting districts’ borders east rather than west to preserve rural Nebraska’s districts.

As it is, “neither of those maps has 33 votes,” the two-thirds needed to break likely filibusters, he said. “I don’t think either of them has 25,” which is a bare majority.

Senators must finish redistricting work by Sept. 30 so local governments have time to redraw their districts for the 2022 elections.

But “if we don’t have this resolved” by then, Brewer said, it’s likely “we’ll leave it to the courts.”

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