By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – For the first time Montana’s legislative district lines will be tackled as one big pie rather than gulping it down in small pieces.
The Montana District and Apportionment Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday for Proposal A, which called for a statewide approach as opposed to Proposal B, which called for a regional approach.
Every 10 years, the bipartisan five-member commission draws new boundaries for legislative district to reflect population changes and maintain voting rights for minorities. The changes to the state’s 100 House and 50 Senate districts –one of which is 17,438 square miles – are to be brought before the state Legislature in 2013 and will not be in place until the 2014 elections.
Rachel Weiss, state research analyst, outlined advantages and disadvantages to both approaches to the commission. She said the statewide approach would allow staff to get comments from all of Montana and from those comments it could divide the state into concrete sections.
With the regional approach it would involve going from region to region and drawing maps.
She said with the statewide approach people from across Montana could respond to the same maps whereas with a regional approach there could be a lot of changes from beginning to end.
Commissioners said they were considering a regional approach but saw advantages to tackling redistricting as a whole state.
Commission Chairman Joe Regnier said the commission would only have to “fight the fight once” if it took a statewide approach and not “15 different times.”
He called the approach “unique and different.”
“I like it,” he said.
Lobbyist Ed Bartlett, who represented the city of Billings, and Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, both told the commission they favored the statewide approach.
Bartlett said he entered the room prepared to tell commissioners to take a regional approach, but now believed the statewide approach has more appeal. He urged the commission to get comments from all four corners of the state, saying that input would be essential.
Essmann said he suggested changes in the last cycle that were rejected in large part because the region he represented was the last to be considered by the commission.
Meetings will be held throughout 2012.
Historically, districting has been used as a tool to give a party a political advantage as it lays the foundation of how people are going to be elected. Montana is one of 13 states that use a commission to do redistricting plans. In most states, the legislature takes on that task.
In 2007, a Montana State University-Billings professor released a report stating Democrats gave themselves an advantage last time when they set districts after the 2000 Census