GOP governor rejects NM redistricting plans

By Barry Massey
Sante Fe, New Mexico (AP) October 2011

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed Democratic-backed legislative and Public Regulation Commission redistricting plans that she criticized as partisan proposals that would make it harder for GOP candidates to compete in some parts of New Mexico for the rest of this decade.

Democrats hold majorities in the state House and Senate. Republicans narrowed the Democratic advantage in the House in last year’s elections and hope they can pick up more seats in 2012.

In her veto messages, the governor outlined legal arguments against the plans that likely will be echoed by Republicans in pending lawsuits that ask courts to take over the task of realigning the boundaries of elected office districts for population changes during the past 10 years.

The goal of redistricting is to equalize district populations as much as possible. But Martinez said the redistricting proposals were inconsistent with the legal requirements of one person, one vote because they packed Republicans in some districts while leaving the populations too low in Democratic-leaning districts.

“This packing tactic allows for the creation of more Democratic districts but the resulting population disparity means that votes of some New Mexicans will count more than others, depending on where they live,” Martinez said of a plan for the 42 Senate seats.

The vetoes came as no surprise because Republicans had voted solidly against all three proposals when they cleared the Legislature in a special session last month. Martinez promised during the session to reject the House and Senate proposals but she hadn’t publicly announced whether she would veto the redistricting plan for the five-member PRC, which regulates utilities, telecommunications and insurance companies.

Anticipating that Martinez would veto all of the proposals, groups of Republicans, Democrats and Native Americans have filed lawsuits in state district courts asking judges to draw new district boundaries. The Legislature failed to agree on a congressional redistricting proposal and the lawsuits ask judges to handle that job as well.

“It is clear that the Democratic legislators believe they are better off seeking allies in the judicial branch to adopt their partisan plans than compromising with their Republican counterparts in the Legislature or with the executive branch to draw fair districts,” Martinez said in explaining her veto of the PRC redistricting measure.

Democrats defended the redistricting plans and complained that the governor wanted to revamp districts to aid Republicans at the expense of Democrats.

“We feel very confident that the bills passed ... followed all the principles of redistricting and addressed minority districts, both Native American and Hispanic districts,” said House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe.

The state must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act in reshaping districts to avoid diluting the voting strength of minorities, such as Native Americans and Hispanics. Martinez objected that the voting strength of Native Americans was reduced in one Senate district and she said the change could help protect the Democratic incumbent, who is not an Indian.

“It’s disingenuous to say that she’s vetoing a plan because of either partisanship or politics,” said Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who helped bring redistricting lawsuits. “She would have been happy to sign a bill that permanently tilted the playing field in favor of the Republicans, but she didn’t have that chance.”

The governor and Democrats each blamed the other side for pushing the redistricting fight into court and potentially forcing taxpayers to spend millions of dollars on fees for lawyers.

Ten years ago, a state district court judge drew new districts for the 70-member House and New Mexico’s congressional districts after then GOP Gov. Gary Johnson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature couldn’t agree on redistricting plans. The state paid nearly $4 million in legal costs.